Social psychology is the study of everyday life – the self, one’s relationships, social influence, and how people view and behave toward others. Its overarching themes center on the principles of situationism, meaning that situations have a powerful influence over behavior, subjectivism, meaning that everyone sees the world through a filtered perception, emergence, or the idea that phenomena are constructed rather than fundamental, and the fact that phenomena are multidimensional – they are the result of many factors. This 101 series examines various introductory topics in social psychology.
Social Psychology 101 is divided into the following chapters of content:
Social Psychology 101: Conducting Research
Social Psychology 101: The Mechanisms of Social Influence
Social Psychology 101: Persuading Others
Social Psychology 101: Attraction, Love, & Relationships
Social Psychology 101: Conducting Research
Known as the founder of social psychology, Kurt Lewin (1936) developed a simple function for the person-situation interaction, demonstrating how human behavior is a function of the person and the environment: B = f (P x E). This indication of interactive multicausality in social behavior is the basis for social psychology, which can be defined as the study of how humans think about, feel, and behave toward others and how others influence a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Stangor, 2011). The way any person may think, feel, or act in a given situation depends on a variety of personal forces, such as personality traits, the experiences one has been through, biological factors, the attitudes one holds, and cognitive biases, as well as a variety of situational forces, such as norms, the surrounding people and their characteristics, culture, the physical and psychological environment, and the timing of the situation (Stangor, 2011). Social psychology is a science which means rigorous research methods are necessary to produce reputable findings in the field. This article will describe how variables are utilized and operationalized in social psychology research, the different study designs that are used, and the significance of random assignment and manipulation checks.
Figure 1: Kurt Lewin is known as the father of Social Psychology (Kurt Lewin, 2015)
Variables are the building blocks of all research. They are the units of information that are measured, manipulated, described and interpreted in a research study. In experimental research, where one variable may have a cause-effect relationship with another, dependent and independent variables are used. Dependent variables are the variables whose values are influenced by other variables in the study (Andrade, 2021). These effects are then measured by researchers. Independent variables are the variables that are actively manipulated by researchers in order to influence the values of dependent variables (Andrade, 2021).
Much of social psychology research entails asking questions about human processes, feelings, or behaviors which are often abstract in scope. To effectively study these kinds of constructs, they must first be operationalized. By giving a variable an operational definition, researchers can directly and precisely state how the conceptual variable of interest will be defined and measured in a study (Shaver, 2015). For example, if researchers wanted to study a concept as abstract as love, they may operationalize it by measuring how many times a couple exchanges forms of affectionate touch throughout the week, or by how often verbal or written words are used to convey love to one another within a particular time period.
Figure 2: Albert Bandura's influential Bobo Doll Experiment demonstrated that children can learn by watching others model behavior. This has significant implications for understanding how children react to violent media (Gray, 2019).
Choosing a Study Design
Social psychology has three goals in mind when it comes to research: describing, predicting, and asserting causality. Therefore, the three major study designs in social psychology research include descriptive research design, correlational research design, and experimental research design (Stangor, 2011). Descriptive research entails discovering the characteristics of a specific population. This research can be conducted through observational studies, archival studies, or questionnaires (Stangor, 2011). Correlational research seeks to understand whether a relationship exists between two variables, as well as the strength of that relationship. This type of research is useful when causal inference is not able to be drawn. Instead, it allows researchers to predict one variable, “Y”, given another variable, “X” (Stangor, 2011). Experimental research is known as the gold standard of research designs, as it allows researchers to draw causal inference between variables. This is done by making changes to one variable, the independent variable, and observing whether there are measurable changes in the other variable, the dependent variable (Stangor, 2011).
The Importance of Random Assignment
Random assignment is a technique researchers use to allocate research participants to each group in a study, such as the experimental group and the control group, so that each participant has an equal chance of being selected for each group. This can be done simply by flipping a coin, picking a number from a hat, rolling a dice, or using technology, depending on how many conditions are present in the study (Stangor, 2011). Random assignment is important to implement because it increases the internal validity of the study, allowing researchers to be more confident that any changes occurring are due to changes in the independent variable alone. Furthermore, it tends to minimize the risk of confounding variables that would impact the study findings (Krause & Howard, 2003).
Figure 3: The Asch Conformity Experiment demonstrated how, in certain social situations, one will deny their own perception in favor of what the group agrees to be correct (Tinako, 2015).
Challenging Experimental Assumptions: Manipulation Checks
Manipulation checks refer to procedures undertaken by researchers to ensure that the independent variable in an experiment is successful in producing its intended effect. Essentially, checking the manipulations tells researchers how effective a certain manipulation in an experiment is. When the manipulation of an independent variable is valid, the result of measuring the dependent variable is more trustworthy and reflective of the intention of the experiment (Hauser et al., 2018). Therefore, manipulation checks help researchers to either verify or falsify the soundness of the manipulation of the independent variable so that the experiment produces more reliable results.
When designing studies, some assumptions have to be made, but manipulation checks enable researchers to gain empirical analysis of these assumptions. For example, if researchers are interested in exposure to aggression, they may place participants in two different conditions to check whether the assumption of the experience of “aggression” is agreed upon by participants. In the first condition, participants would be asked to play a violent video game, and in the second condition, they would be asked to play a non-violent video game. To check the manipulation, researchers would then delegate a survey to the participants asking them to rate on a scale from one to seven how violent or aggressive the video game they just played was. If the mean of the survey for the first condition is much higher than the mean for the second condition, then the act of playing the violent video game demonstrates the researchers’ desired effect.
Figure 4: The Milgram Obedience Study illustrated to researchers how influential authority figures may be over people's behavior (Baker, 2013).
Research in social psychology is a meticulous process that requires much detailed planning. Many interacting forces play a role in the person-situation interaction, so it is important to precisely define and operationalize all variables used in a study, choose the appropriate study design according to one’s research goals, implement random assignment of participants to increase study validity, and conduct manipulation checks.
Andrade, C. (2021). A student’s guide to the classification and operationalization of variables in the conceptualization and design of a clinical study: Part 1. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 43(2), 177–179. https://doi.org/10.1177/0253717621994334
Hauser, D., Ellsworth, P., & Gonzalez, R. (2018). Are manipulation checks necessary? Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 998. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00998/full
Krause, M. S., & Howard, K. I. (2003). What random assignment does and does not do. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 59(7), 751–766. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.10170
Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of topological psychology. New York-London. New York: McGraw Hill.
Shaver, K. G. (2015). Principles of social psychology: Third edition. Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315718125
Stangor, C. (2011). Research methods for the behavioral sciences (4th ed). Wadsworth Cengage Learning. http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy1212/2009942928-t.html
Cover image: Guards walking in the yard [Photo]. Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.prisonexp.org/gallery
Figure 1: Kurt Lewin [Photo]. (2015). Highbrow. https://gohighbrow.com/kurt-lewin/
Figure 2: Gray, J. (2019). Observational Learning | The Bobo Doll experience or experiment? – Technology of Communication [Photo]. https://techofcomm.wordpress.com/2019/07/18/observational-learning-the-bobo-doll-experience-or-experiment/
Figure 3: Tinako. (2015). Asch Conformity Experiment [Photo]. Animal Rights Rochester. https://arroc.org/the-other-victims-of-animal-farming/
Figure 4: Baker, P. C. (2013). Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything? [Photo]. Pacific Standard. https://psmag.com/social-justice/electric-schlock-65377