Skip navigation

5 Lessons Social Psychology Has Taught Us About The Human Mind

Conformity, aggression, prejudice, love – what is at the basis of these powerful experiences?

It’s difficult not to be fascinated by psychology. Every one of us is driven by it, and the very same biological mechanisms that give rise to fear and hate are the same that enable us to show love and selflessness.

Here, we highlight five incredible life lessons that we can learn from the study of social psychology.


1.  We’re not great at understanding each other

One of the most important discoveries that social psychology has made is that none of us are natural psychologists. Understanding how people are feeling, and why they do the things they do, is actually really difficult. This has implications on the field of psychology, but more broadly, on the way we treat each other every day.

A famous Ross, Greene and House study on false consensus showed that individuals have a cognitive bias towards believing that the majority of others behave the same way that they do. This leads to the belief that people who disagree with us must have more extreme personality traits or, to put it bluntly, something wrong with them – a fact that illustrates the importance of social psychology studies.


2. Groups are crucial to our identities

The idea that we define ourselves by the groups we align ourselves with is nothing new. However, a groundbreaking study by Tajfel et al in 1971 discovered that individuals will associate themselves with a group, and work to the benefit of that group, even when they don’t know who the other group members are or what they are like. Tejfal showed that, in order to perceive themselves as high status, individuals will actively work to create a group that represents low status. This contrast is integral to our sense of self, and thus, our behaviour.


3.  Behaviour is mostly nurture, not nature

The Bobo Doll experiment is one of social psychology’s most noteworthy studies. In 1961, Dr. Albert Bandura conducted a series of experiments to analyse what impact observation had on behaviour and learning. He selected groups of young children from a class and exposed one group to a video of an adult being violent towards a children’s bouncy doll and another being neutral towards it. He then introduced the children to the doll in an isolated environment.

The children that were primed with an aggressive video were overwhelming more violent towards the Bobo Doll than the children who weren’t. This showed that behaviour, at least in children, can be driven by perceived behaviour in others.


4.  The things we think about affect our choices

We tend to think that our personalities inform our behaviours and that these stay mostly the same from day to day, hour to hour. In reality, the things we are thinking about at any given time can have a dramatic impact on the choices we make. A classic study from Darley & Batson confirmed this hypothesis in 1973 with their ‘Good Samaritan’ experiment.

In order to test altruistic behaviour, Darley and Baston created a few different groups of test participants and told them to walk between two university buildings. The first was composed of people who were asked to deliver a speech about helping others, whilst the second was told they were under a great deal of time pressure to get from one building to another. Between the two buildings, however, the researchers placed an injured man.

They found that those people who were told to rush were almost three times less likely to stop and help than the control group. Moreover, the people asked to deliver a speech about helping others were more than twice as likely to stop as people who weren’t. With this experiment, Darley and Baston proved that our choices can be heavily influenced by surrounding factors, despite how permanent we may believe our personalities to be.


5.  We only need one thing for a healthy life

In 1939, Harvard University began two very special studies that had a deep impact on the social psychology field. The Grant study and the Glueck study were longitudinal experiments designed to test how psychological and emotional states affect physical health later in life. They studied a total of 726 men over 75 years to find out how a variety of variables impacted their health. The conclusion? One variable stood out above all else:

"The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."

This quote from Robert Waldinger, the current director of the project, sums up one of the most profound social psychology studies ever created – that the biggest factor in determining a healthy mind and body is love.


Broaden your mind. Study Social Psychology with us. 

Interested in exploring more social psychology? The Biological and Social Psychology module on our distance learning Psychology MSc considers the human as a social being, exploring some of the most renowned studies regarding issues such as conformity, prejudice and interpersonal relationships.

Learn more about our online conversion course.


a sign in front of a crowd

Northumbria Open Days

Open Days are a great way for you to get a feel of the University, the city of Newcastle upon Tyne and the course(s) you are interested in.

a person sitting at a table using a laptop
NU World Virtual Tours

Virtual Tour

Get an insight into life at Northumbria at the click of a button! Come and explore our videos and 360 panoramas to immerse yourself in our campuses and get a feel for what it is like studying here using our interactive virtual tour.

Latest News and Features

Tim Wilson
Dr Steph Yardley
Gondola in Venice
Campus Sunset Generic
IVCO 2024
gettyimages/Robert Ingelhart
Seagrass habitats are expanding in some areas, to the surprise of researchers. Matthew Floyd, CC BY-ND
More events

Upcoming events

REVEAL: Computer and Information Science
REVEAL: History

Back to top