The Emergence of Social Psychology

As a branch of psychology, social psychology studies “the effects of social variables and cognitions on individual behavior and social interactions” (Zimbardo, Johnson, & McCann, 2012, p. 400).  Comparing to other scientific disciplines, social psychology is a rather new science.  The history of social psychology is just a little longer than one hundred years.  On the other hand, a rich history of thoughts and concepts in social psychology can be traced back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  As Minton (2008) stated, “the modern ideas of twentieth-century social psychology were anticipated and, in some cases, directly influenced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers” (p. 364).

For over a century, the scope of social psychology has been broadened with the central inquiry for understanding the nature and causes of individual behavior, and people’s thinking and feelings in social situations.  Social psychology is a dynamic field which changes rapidly.  Constant changes in social environments throughout the nineteenth century such as industrialization, urbanization, social services, and public health had become the impetus for social psychologists to develop new methods and theories in studies of this discipline (Lubek, 2000, p. 324).  Today, social psychology continues to grow with many talented scholars join the force of social psychological research which has contributed to our understanding of human behavior and social experience.  The following paragraphs provide an overview of significant milestones in the early stage of the social psychology development.

The Birth of Social Psychology

According to Hogg and Cooper (2007), 1895 was the year when social psychology was born as a scientific discipline.  In this year two scholars, Norman Triplett and Gustave Le Bon conducted pioneer research in social psychology.  
Norman Triplett, an American psychologist at Indiana University, was also a cycling enthusiast.  Triplett observed that riders performed better when racing together than when riding along.  This observation inspired him to conduct empirical research to study how an individual’s performance on an assigned work changes with presence of other people.  
Gustave Le Bon, a distinguished French social scientist, conducted important pioneer studies on individual behavior in crowds.  In 1895, Le Bon published his best-known study in the book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.  Le Bon is often considered the father of social psychology (Bendersky, 2007, p. 258).

The First Social Psychological Study

In psychological community, the credit is usually given to Norman Triplett for conducting the first empirical study in social psychology field.  In 1895 Triplett designed the first social scientific experiment in which he compared children’s performance in winding fishing reels when they were alone and when they were competing with other children (Aiello & Douthitt, 2001).  His hypothesis was approved in the research results that the children wound the line faster when they were in competition.  Triplett’s work was published in 1897.  This study is considered as the beginning in applying experimental methods to the social sciences research.   

First Textbooks in Social Psychology

American sociologist Edward Ross and English psychologist William McDougall are considered the first authors of textbooks “exclusively devoted to social psychology” (Minton, 2008, p. 364).  In 1908, coincidentally they each wrote and published separate textbooks.  Both books contain the phrase “social psychology” in the titles.  In their books McDougall and Ross presented different perspectives regarding social psychology.  McDougall’s book was emphasized on psychological social psychology where the individual was the focus of analysis.  On the other side, Ross presented sociological social psychology perspective in the textbook and put focus on the study of groups.


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

Bendersky, J. W. (2007). 'Panic': The impact of Le Bon's crowd psychology on U.S. military thought. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 43(3), 257-283. doi:10.1002/jhbs.20239

Hogg, M. A., & Cooper, J. (2007). The sage handbook of social psychology: Concise student edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Lubek, I. (2000). Understanding and using the history of social psychology. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 36(4), 319-328. doi:10.1002/1520-6696(200023)36:4<319::AID-JHBS2>3.0.CO;2-B

Minton, H. L. (2008). Book review of A history of social psychology: From the eighteenth-century enlightenment to the second world war. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 44(4), 364-365. doi:10.1002/jhbs.20330

Zimbardo, P. G., Johnson, R. L., & McCann, V. (2012). Psychology core concepts (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

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