Social Psychology: Understanding Self in Prison

Questions about how other people shape one’s actions, thoughts, beliefs and perceptions are of great interest amongst psychologists. An individual may respond to the same situation differently depending on the environment he or she is in. People placed in groups perceive issues differently than when acting individually. What is the cause of all these? Are there underlying factors that determine how people think or act depending on ideas and opinions of others? Well, social psychology gives insights on these issues. Social psychology is a scientific field of study that deals with establishing how social and cognitive litigation affect relationships between people (Mackie & Smith 2000, p. 3). Fundamentally, social psychology deals with how people perceive and mingle with others.

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Why is it necessary to study social psychology? Many issues concerning human behavior arise more than often: some people claim that human behavior is inheritable while others believe that the same behavior comes through learning. According to Chang (2009), this field of study deals successfully with analyzing society and its behavior. It applies both fundamental and applied research. Fundamental research explains why individuals behave how they behave while applied research tackles a certain social problem (Chang, 2009). Authorities use social influence to enhance good behavior and submission to authority. The success of such exercise depends largely on proper understanding of social psychology.

Chang (2009) concurs that it is important that people understand others because societal subjects are so diverse and without social psychology, living in this society would be almost unbearable. Through social psychology, promotion of both injunctive and descriptive norms becomes easy. People get rewards or punishments depending on how they behave. This motivates society to behave in a good way. People can gain knowledge on the best way to handle others thus making communities to co-exist harmoniously and live in peace. The ultimate role of social psychology is to improve humanity and societal well-being. This is because it seeks to establish why people behave the way they do and under what influences. With this knowledge, improving relationships in the society becomes easier thus fostering humanity, which appears to be on the decline by each passing day.

Researchers have put forward several psychology theories to understand society better. According to Wagner (2009), these theories include behavioral theories, developmental theories, cognitive theories, humanist theories, and social psychology theories. Under social psychology, there exist theories of love, leadership theories, conformity and obedience. Social psychology expounds on the Asch conformity experiments. These experiments explain conformity as individuals’ propensity to comply with unuttered rules of a group they are in (Wagner, 2009). In this experiment, psychologists put students in a visual test whereby some students acted as confederates while others acted as professionals. The results showed that, when tested individually, the students made right answers. However, in a group, almost 75% of the students conformed to group answers that were wrong in some cases. The experiment also established the effect of group size on degree of conformity. It established that the group size was directly proportional to the degree of conformity.

Researchers in social psychology employ correlational approaches in their studies. These correlated studies play a pivotal role in terms of ethics of the study. Learning how people relate with others and establishing the role played by social and cognitive procedures in these relationships is paramount. This is because essentially the well-being of a society depends largely on how people relate. Mackie and Smith (2000) concur that societies strongly believe that two heads are better than one and people use community standards to define how they act (p. 330). The notion that what the majority accept as true is always true is not correct because at times, what majority accepts as right is actually the exact opposite of the truth. However, social psychology gives answers and insights about some of these pressing issues.

What happens when good people mingle with bad people? Does vileness overcome humanity or do they co-exist? In quest to establish whether evil gloats over humanity, Zimbardo (2009) unearthed important issues about human nature. Zimbardo’s study involved simulations to establish how people react to what other people say, or do to them. He placed volunteers in a virtual jail whereby, some acted as prisoners while others as guards. After six days of subjecting the prisoners into real prison conditions, he evaluated the results.

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The results were amazing and depicts clearly that people act, think or behave depending on what other people think of them. In one case, guards referred to a certain prisoner as a ‘bad’ prisoner. This prisoner became hysterical because the guards called him a bad prisoner. It took the intervention of Zimbardo to cool down this virtual prisoner by reminding him that he was not a real prisoner and those guards were not real guards. What are the implications here? The prisoner had gone through certain changes, which enabled him to think he was a real prisoner and a bad prisoner in that case. After terminating the experiment, some prisoners admitted that they felt like they were in a real prison, a prison created by psychologists not the government. However, they felt that the difference between a real prison and the virtual one was only in the people who created it. Otherwise, the conditions did not differ. This clearly shows that people perceptions change depending on the environment they are in but not based on their convictions. People also act depending on how other people think of them.

In a bid to expound on how other people’s opinions affect individuals’ behavior, Shamir and Drory (1982) made interesting observations in a jail setting. They established that prison guards’ attitudes influenced heavily behaviors of inmates. Some changes that inmates carried on even after their release, originated from the guards’ beliefs and attitudes. The implication here is that people will behave depending on what others think. Research indicates that the majority of human beings get a sense of belonging by conforming to established norms in society. The subject of conformity in society together with its effect on influencing other people’s behaviors is still salient in social psychology and in community at large.

There are channels through which other people influence somebody’s attitudes and beliefs. It may be through actions, verbal or nonverbal communication among others. However, Ajzen in 1992 established that persuasive communication plays a pivotal role in influencing social behavior. Ajzen points out that the nature of persuasive communication is to use verbal words with strong argumentative messages, which sway and convince the hearts and minds of the hearers of the message. This strategy invokes reasoning, making the subjects comply with the advocated situation by bringing out the authenticity of the situation (Ajzen 1992, p.3).

Despite the numerous advantages of social psychology in society, there are shortcomings facing this field of study. According to Berek (2002), this is a scientific field of study and the methods used should undergo testing and approval. Social psychology fundamentally employs observational methods that reflect only a particular group but not the whole society. People behave differently under different circumstances thus social psychology does not offer a wholesome solution to societal problems. This field also employs correlational approaches that predict behavior in a given situation. However, correlational studies do not point out whether occurrence of a given situation or behavior depend on the other (Berek, 2002). Survey is the only viable tool used in correlational studies and this deals with a portion of a population. Nevertheless, survey results become relevant if every person participate in the exercise. Social psychology thus relies on some assumptions and extrapolation of the available information to represent a whole society.

Social psychology thus is an important field of study in society. It establishes why people behave and act in a given manner. It unearths the social and cognitive processes behind people’s actions. In most cases, people conform to existing standards to become acceptable and gain a sense of belonging. People like to identify with others because they think other people are better than they are. Social psychology gives insights into these issues making them clearer to scholars. This is an important tool in enhancing good behavior in society and people could achieve through persuasive communication. However, the methods used in social psychology research are wanting due to employment of assumptions. Social psychology is very much important at all levels of society, the disadvantages notwithstanding.


Ajzen, I. 1992. ”Persuasive Communication Theory in Social Psychology: A Historical Perspective.” 2009. Web.

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Berek, E. 2002. “Social Psychology.” 2009. Web.

Chang, A. 2009. “Importance of Social Psychology.” Web.

Shamir, B. & Drory, A. 1982. “Prisoners, the Rehabilitative Potential of the Prison And Their Own Supportive Role. A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Prison Guards’ Beliefs Regarding the Prisons.” 2009. Web.

Smith, E. & Mackie, D. 2000. “Social Psychology”. (p. 3, 330). 2009. Web.

Wagner, K. 2009. “Psychology Theories.” 2009. Web.

Zimbardo, P. 2007. “A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted At Stanford University.” Stanford Prison Experiment. 2009. Web. 

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