Applied Social Psychology

Brandon I Brockmyer & Kathryn C Oleson. Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Editor: Roy F Baumeister & Kathleen D Vohs, Volume 1, Sage Publications, 2007.


Applied social psychology can be defined as using social psychological theories, principles, research findings, and experimental methods to understand social issues and to offer real-world solutions for a variety of social problems. As a discipline, applied social psychology functions on the premise that social problems are, at their heart, caused by human behavior. To understand and change these problem behaviors, applied social psychologists conduct a scientific examination of individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they pertain to a variety of social influences. Through their research, applied social psychologists hope to offer practical suggestions for improving human social behavior in areas ranging from workplace productivity to safer sexual activity.

History and Background

While an earlier generation of psychologists had been predominantly interested in the structure and measurement of mental tasks in the laboratory, the 20th century saw a substantial increase in researchers advocating the application of theories outside the laboratory. In 1903, experimental psychologist Walter Dill Scott wrote The Theory and Practice of Advertising, suggesting that consumer habits could be influenced by emotional suggestions. In 1908, psychologist Hugo Münsterberg defined applied psychology as research adjusted to fit the problems encountered in everyday life. In works on industrial psychology, advertising, and education, Münsterberg, Scott, and others began exploring the possibilities of an applied psychology. In 1917, psychologist G. S. Hall founded the Journal of Applied Psychology to further explore the potential of this new field.

By the 1920s, there was an undeniable enthusiasm for applied research in the psychological community, despite its reputation as an “undignified” pursuit. In addition to the new challenges it presented, applied research was also attractive because private corporations often provided better salaries than did academic institutions. John B. Watson, former American Psychological Association president and one of the founders of modern behaviorism, began a successful career at the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm after being fired from Johns Hopkins University in 1920. Watson was able to put psychological principles into practice with such advertising industry standards as expert and celebrity testimonials and focus group research. He was promoted to vice president in only 4 years and was eventually honored for his achievements by the American Psychological Association. Even those psychologists who stayed in traditional laboratories found that it was easier to justify lab materials and costs if their research had the potential for application.

The work of Kurt Lewin (1840-1947) marks the beginning of modern applied social psychology. Lewin, best known for his field theory suggesting that behavior is a function of an individual’s personality and his or her environment, proposed that social psychologists should engage in what he called action research. A social activist himself, Lewin believed that social issues should inspire social psychological research. This research could then be used to provide solutions for social problems. Lewin’s action research sought to define a social problem, recommend countermeasures, and test the effectiveness of those countermeasures through community involvement, surveys, case studies, and controlled experiments. To this end, Lewin formed several organizations to engage in action research, including the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Research Center for Group Dynamics, the Commission on Community Interrelations, and the National Training Laboratories. These groups studied interracial housing, ingroup loyalty, and leadership styles, establishing Lewin as one of the foremost proponents of combined applied and theoretical social psychology in the history of psychology.

As social psychology sought greater acceptance as a science in the 1950s and 1960s, action research in the field became less popular and was replaced by basic academic social psychology. It was not until the late 1960s and 1970s, while American society was undergoing radical transformations as a result of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal, that social psychologists returned to the field in an attempt to understand and explain what was happening around them. Through the 1970s and 1980s, social psychologists debated if applied research could inform public policy. If so, many felt that the researchers themselves must present and explain their findings to policymakers or risk dangerous misinterpretation of their work.

Applied social psychology has been growing in prestige since the 1980s. With applications ranging from improving the criminal justice system to informing education and health issues, the last few decades have seen substantial increases in nontraditional funding sources. While applied social psychological research continues within academic institutions, private and government grants, as well as full-time research positions within large corporations, have allowed researchers the flexibility and opportunity to study a diverse array of social phenomena.

Unique Features of Applied Social Psychology

While research in basic social psychology often begins with scientific curiosity, work in applied social psychology typically starts with the identification of a specific social problem, such as teen pregnancy or hate crimes. Applied social psychologists seek to understand and treat these social maladies through the application of the theories and methods of social psychology. While basic social psychologists attempt to isolate the causal relationships between a small number of specific variables that can be carefully controlled in the lab, applied social psychologists work to identify and predict large-scale effects that can be used to design and implement social programs. Real social issues rarely involve only one or two psychological variables. Therefore, it is often useful for applied social psychologists to consider broad combinations of psychological principles when attempting to understand a social issue. It is also common for applied social psychologists to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to their work, incorporating economic, sociological, and political perspectives.

Within the laboratory, social psychologists are generally able to conduct precise and carefully controlled experimental manipulations to test their hypotheses. Within communities and businesses, applied researchers often work in unpredictable and unrestricted environments, relying on less-precise research techniques such as surveys, self-reports, and rough “before and after” evaluations. Often at the mercy of corporate or government sponsors, applied social psychologists work under program deadlines, funding restrictions, and political pressures.

While laboratory effects need to reach statistical significance to support the hypothesis of the experimenter, implemented social programs need to show effects that are not only statistically significant but also large enough to have real-world consequences for the program’s sponsor. Applied social psychologists must also make quantitative estimates when designing an experimental social program to show that the program’s benefits will ultimately outweigh the initial costs.

Working in Applied Social Psychology

To list all the areas to which social psychology is currently being applied would be almost impossible. Broadly, applied social psychologists are active in studying and improving educational programs, industrial and organizational productivity, environmental and health care issues, justice system reform, and all types of mass communication, including advertising, public relations, and politics.

Some applied social psychologists conduct research for academic institutions, some for private foundations and corporations, and some for government organizations. Some evaluate the success or failure of a specific experimental social program while others work as internal consultants to government agencies and businesses, providing feedback on a variety of projects. Some applied social psychologists give policy advice to corporate or government managers from outside an organization while still others become managers themselves. Finally, some applied social psychologists become full-time advocates for social change, working with activist groups rather than from inside a government or corporate body.

Criticisms of Applied Social Psychology

Criticisms of applied social psychology come from psychologists as well as from policymakers. Laboratory psychologists question the methodology behind much of the applied social research. With no control groups, few experimental manipulations, and a heavy reliance on self-report and correlation, can applied social psychology really contribute to social psychological theories? After all, a successful social program will need to be tailored differently to every community in which it is implemented. Policymakers question whether the effects of experimental social programs are large enough (or cheap enough) to be widely implemented. Others argue that the large-scale behavior modification implied in some social psychological programs is unethical. Ultimately, there is a genuine tradeoff between conducting basic and applied social psychological research. In basic studies, researchers seek general principles that may not directly apply to more complicated real-world problems; in applied studies, researchers address specific problems, yet their conclusions may fail to generalize to other situations.

While both groups have valid critiques of an admittedly murky field, it is important to emphasize that applied social psychologists are actively engaged in the scientific study of social issues. While this problem-oriented approach does take some emphasis away from theory building, the plethora of field observations and unique program implementations essential to applied research will only serve to strengthen and refine current and future social psychological theories. Although the oversimplification of research findings could lead to the improper implementation of social programs, applied social psychologists seek to prevent such use by taking an active role in designing socially responsible policy.

A final issue to note is that the implied divide between applied and basic research ignores the contributions that basic social psychologists often make to areas of application. While applied social psychology refers to research with a problem-oriented focus, it is much more difficult to define who meets the definition of an applied social psychologist. Many psychologists primarily focused on basic laboratory research are also actively involved in the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and other organizations committed to the application of social psychological principles.