Plato referred to the idea of the “crowd mind,” and concepts such as social loafing and social facilitation were introduced in the late 1800s. But it wasn’t until after World War II that research on social psychology began in earnest.
The horrors of the Holocaust led researchers to study social influence, conformity, and obedience. What could explain why people participated in such evil actions? Were people following orders and bowing to social pressure, or were there some other forces at work? By investigating these questions, social psychologists were able to gain a greater understanding of the power of social forces such as authority, compliance, and obedience.
Social psychologist Stanley Milgram, for example, was able to demonstrate just how far people are willing to go to obey authority figures. In a series of now-infamous experiments, Milgram and his colleagues ordered study participants to deliver what they believed was a potentially dangerous shock to another person.
In reality, the shocks were not real and the other individual was only pretending to be hurt by the electrical pulses. But 65% of those who took part in the study delivered the maximum level of shock simply because an authority figure told them to do so.
Social psychology has continued to grow throughout the twentieth century, inspiring research that has contributed to our understanding of social experience and behavior. Our social world makes up such a tremendous part of our lives, so it is no wonder that this topic is so fascinating to many.