Experimental Social Psychology - Strengths and Weaknesses

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Outline the main features of experimental social psychology and consider the influences that led to its emergence. What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses?

Psychology was originally a branch of Philosopy, according to Hollway (2007). As more emphasis was placed on following scientific methods and principles, psychologists began using laboratory experiments to carry out research into individual behaviours. Experiments were considered to be more objective when considering individuals within the social world. Researchers were able to separate different situations that occurred in natural settings in an attempt to replicate particular aspects in a laboratory environment. One of the earliest examples of contemporary social psychology, according to Hollway (2007) was that espoused by Walter Moede. In his 1920 pamphlet on Experimental Group Psychology he suggested the use of laboratory settings to measure group behaviour which would allow different effects to be manipulated. Moede’s work influenced the American, when Allport who, by using Moede’s approach, investigated how people’s judgemental abilities are affected by their group membership. This was considered the start of North American experimental social psychology, which focused on understanding how social stimuli impacted on individuals. A second form of social psychology, sociological social psychology developed alongside the experimental methodology. This version involved the individual and social interaction focusing more on the use of naturalistic observations and surveys. Mainstream social psychology in the United Kingdom was influenced by the experimental tradition of North America. Miles Hewstone and Antony Manstead, in the Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Social Psychology defined Social Psychology as “the scientific study of the reciprocal influence of the individual and his or her social context” (1995, p.588, cited by Hollway, 2007). Their interpretation of scientific was empirical and mostly experimental. Most of the experimental research in North America was carried out at university laboratories using university students. This was mainly due to the view that power universities and funding bodies had over the experimental social psychology during that time. The results from the research were considered to be representative of the population as a whole. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the experimental research carried out in the United States was causing anxiety amongst some social psychologists. A particular set of studies carried out by Stanley Milgram (cited by Hollway 2007), which involved participants administering what they thought were electric shocks to learners, brought to the forefront some of the concerns about the way experiments were carried out. One of the criticisms was the view that experimental results produced from using university environments were ecological validity. Viv Burr (cited by Taylor, 2007) argued that the authority of the institutional context of the experiments in a university setting led to the results of their findings being distorted. This possible distortion caused by the institutional environment was largely ignored by experimental social psychologists. However, from results to the initial feedback interviews in his study, Milgram did acknowledge that the use of a laboratory in a university setting appeared to have given authority to the instructions received by the participants. He therefore carried out a further experiment in premises away from the university. This produced a reduced level of obedience, 48% as opposed to 65% in the original experiment. Milgram dismissed the difference in the results as insignificant. However, Wendy Hollway (Hollway, 2007) expressed a different view pointing out that in the second experiment the majority of participants were disobedient and therefore, in her opinion, the results were significant. Experimental research is primarily quantitative based and produces results which can...
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