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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Significant Contributors in Social Psychology

Social psychology is a young, dynamic, and fast-changing field derived from the combination of psychology and sociology.  This discipline was born in 1895 remarked by Triplett’s first empirical study in this field.  Same as Triplett, Le Bon’s work had predominant impact on the birth of social psychology.  In 1908, McDougall and Ross separately wrote the first textbooks in social psychology.  During the history of development in social psychology, many scholars contributed their knowledge in various areas of this discipline.  In this article we briefly reviewed Floyd Allport, Solomon Asch, Muzafer Sherif, Kurt Lewin, Carl Hovland, Leon Festinger, Fritz Heider, and Stanley Milgram and their primary works in social psychology.  Besides Triplett and Le Bon who marked the birth of social psychology and McDougall and Ross who published the first textbooks, other significant researchers are overviewed along the social psychology development timeline:

Floyd Allport

Floyd Allport is often called the founder of experimental social psychology because of his research with focus on experimental measurement of social phenomenon.  In 1920, Allport “coined the term social facilitation and extended the research of that time by attempting to control potentially extraneous influences, such as competition” (Aiello & Douthitt, 2001, p. 169).  Allport’s research also demonstrated his theoretical rigor and his popular 1924 textbook Social Psychology marked the beginning of the modern period of social psychology.

Solomon Asch

According to Levine (1999), the psychological community best remembers Solomon Asch for his laboratory research on conformity.  Asch’s studies on conformity revealed that most people would conform to a majority position under certain circumstances even when the position was obviously wrong.  Asch's work has “had a profound impact on how psychologists think about and study social influence in groups” (Levine, 1999, p. 358).   Asch’s studies later inspired Stanley Milgram to conduct his well-known research on obedience and authority.

Muzafer Sherif

The Turkish-born social psychologist Muzafer Sherif is “one of the most influential social psychologists of the twentieth century” (Harvey, 2000, p. 270).  Muzafer Sherif studied normative behavior of human beings.  Sherif’s idea was that social norms were built from human interactions over time and social norms could influence and motivate human behavior.  Extending from his theory of group norms, Sherif also studied values of internalization, attitude change, and key aspects of the self “that, as major internal anchorages, influence cognitive outcomes” (Harvey, 2000, p. 270).

Kurt Lewin

Burnes (2004) acknowledged Kurt Lewin as "the intellectual father of contemporary theories of applied behavioral science, action research and planned change" (p. 978). Lewin was the first scientist to study the group dynamics and group influence on individuals' behavior in the group.  Lewin’s pioneering research on group dynamics built the foundation for scientific understanding of human groups.  Lewin's contributions in psychology had been applied in modern management science such as organizational changes.  In Lewin's theory, a change should be started at the group level with focus on variables such as group norms, role, and interactions. Lewin’work indicates that “it is fruitless to concentrate on changing the behaviour of individuals” (Burnes, 2004, p. 983).

Carl Hovland
American psychology Carl Hovland had done several interesting and predominant research on persuasion, propaganda, and change of attitude.  When Hovland was in charge of the new experimental section of the research branch of the War Department’s Information and Education Division in Washington, D.C., he led the research team to evaluate the functions of training programs and study the insights of maintaining moral standards in American army troops. In this project Hovland designed empirical studies to research “factors relating to the communicator, the audience, and the content of the message affected the persuasiveness of mass communications” (Lovie, P. P. & Lovie, A. D., 2000). 

Leon Festinger

As the father of cognitive dissonance theory, Leon Festinger was a legend and “a commanding figure in psychology” (Gazzaniga, 2006, p. 89).  The most significant contribution by Leon Festinger is the development of the theory of cognitive dissonance.  This theory suggests that people are motivated to minimize discomfort when inconsistent beliefs and behaviors cause such discomfort.  Social comparison theory is another contribution by Festinger.  Social comparison theory, which reveals critical aspects of proximity in social relationships, was developed based on early nonparametric statistical experiments conducted by Festinger.

Fritz Heider

Fritz Header’s predominant work on social perception and attribution processes has made him one of the most influential social psychologists in this field. Header’s famous book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations published in 1958, presented large scope conceptual studies of the psychological processes with human social perception.  As Malle (2008) mentioned,  Heider’s insights were “deep and numerous about the role of inference in social perception, the principle of cognitive consistency, the impact of folk theories, and the nature of the ‘social mind’ that tries to make sense of other minds” (p. 170).

Stanley Milgram

As Russell (2011) stated, “Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments remain one of the most inspired contributions in the field of social psychology” (p. 140).  Milgram’s research showed that a lot of people in the experiment obey an experimenter's order to give potentially dangerous levels of electric shock to a stranger who participated in the experiment.   Solomon Asch was the most important intellectual influence in Milgram's career.  Inspired by Asch's early work, Milgram’s conducted his doctoral study on a procedural adaptation of Asch’s conformity experiment.  Milgram’s adaptation was scientifically more rigorous than Asch’s experiment (Russell, 2011).


Aiello, J. R., & Douthitt, E. A. (2001). Social facilitation from Triplett to electronic performance monitoring. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, And Practice, 5(3), 163-180. doi:10.1037/1089-2699.5.3.163

Burnes, B. (2004). Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to Change: A Re-appraisal. Journal Of Management Studies, 41(6), 977-1002. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6486.2004.00463.x

Gazzaniga, M. S. (2006). Leon Festinger: Lunch with Leon. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 1(1), 88-94. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2006.t01-3-.x

Harvey, O. J. (2000). Sherif, Muzafer. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.) , Encyclopedia of psychology, Vol. 7 (pp. 270-271). Washington, DC New York, NY USUS: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10522-118

Levine, J. M. (1999). Solomon Asch's legacy for group research. Personality And Social Psychology Review, 3(4), 358-364. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0304_5

Lovie, P. P., & Lovie, A. D. (2000). Hovland, Carl Iver. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.) , Encyclopedia of psychology, Vol. 4 (pp. 167-168). Washington, DC New York, NY USUS: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10519-075

Malle, B. F. (2008). Fritz Heider's legacy: Celebrated insights, many of them misunderstood. Social Psychology, 39(3), 163-173. doi:10.1027/1864-9335.39.3.163

Russell, N. (2011). Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments: Origins and early evolution. British Journal Of Social Psychology, 50(1), 140-162. doi:10.1348/014466610X492205

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