Social Psychology: 20 Useful Lessons

A person spends most of his/her life among other people and belongs to a variety of groups: family, colleagues at work, friends and associates. One’s behavior changes dramatically depending on the situation. Social psychologists study the behavior and motives of the people from different groups and single out interesting patterns, which you will learn from this article.


1. It is important for us to interact with people

Psychologists in the US have found that 20% of the people, who receive Christmas cards from strangers, send them their congratulations too. For the same reason, waiters get a bigger tip if they tell about the recipes or give advice.

2. People tend to appreciate what they possess

Studies have shown that the willingness to sell is smaller in comparison with the desire to buy. The participants of the experiment were convinced to buy a glass for $5, but when they finally received it, they refused to sell it for less than 10 dollars.

3. Heat makes us angrier, and sadness makes us feel cold

When you’re dissatisfied with something, it seems that it is cold in the room, and you will probably ask for hot dishes rather than cold ones. The crime rate is higher in tropical regions, and more crimes are committed on warm days. This is because heat excites the nervous system, and people mistakenly attribute this fact to any other situation.

4. A smile is contagious and can say a lot about you

In the cinema, people tend to laugh more if the people around them also laugh. There is another situation: bowling, somebody knocks down a strike and begins to smile as he turns to the friends. This smile is intended for social approval, not because of the joy after doing something successful.

According to a study, the students who showed a Duchenne smile (a sincere smile that involves the muscles around the eyes and mouth) in the photographs got married with higher probability and mostly called themselves happy 30 years later. At the same time, the students with less expressive smiles divorced more often.

5. Waiting influences decision-making

During a special study, psychologists phoned the participants and asked them if they would like to hypothetically become volunteers of the American Cancer Society. When these people were phoned a few days later and were asked the same question, 31% of the respondents agreed, although only 4% gave their consent during the first call.

6. We act differently, if we recall about ourselves

Before handing out the tests, the participants of the experiment were told that men and women would gain a different amount of points. After this, the participants’ performance fell sharply. Men’s results became lower after talking to an attractive woman. Another situation is when the kids go to a Halloween party together and take a lot of sweets; but if the child goes alone and is asked the name, he/she will take fewer sweets.

7. Monitoring from aside sometimes helps, but not during the meals

If you are watched while you are doing a simple task – the results will be higher. If somebody watches you during a difficult task or the one associated with obtaining a new skill, the results will be lower. By the way, this feature is characteristic not only of humans, but also of cockroaches (!) Sharing the room with someone else has another effect: if a repairman is working in the room (even in the corner), people start to work more slowly. In addition, people and animals eat more if they eat in someone’s presence.

8. An effective way to make a person do something is to compare him/her with friends


One electric power company tried to persuade the people to save electricity at home. To do this, they released posters with the words “Your neighbors have reduced the consumption of electricity.” As a result, household energy use decreased by 2%. The slogans like “Saving energy, you save money” and “Save energy to save the environment” did not help to reduce the use of electricity. In some cases, they even led to an increase in consumption.

9. The context of the action affects the action itself

During the survey, 56% of the participants, voting at school, were for the increase in the school budget, while in other places this figure was 53%. Although this effect may not seem so important, it is statistically significant. This experiment was repeated in the laboratory (64% of the people, who were shown school photos, voted for the increase in the budget).

10. The better you learn something, the more you like it

This feature is called “recognition effect”, and it occurs in a matter of seconds. This is widely used in advertising. The more often you see an ad or a commercial, the more you will value the company. Vivid pictures that trigger positive and negative emotions for just a few milliseconds change your opinion about anything at the subconscious level.

11. Smooth lines vs angles

People tend to prefer rounded visual objects rather than the objects with sharpened edges.

12. Make sure that nothing happens to you when there are a lot of people around

Witnesses are less likely to prevent crime or help in an emergency, if there are other observers. They think that someone else will help and they will be able to avoid responsibility. If the victim is bleeding, people help even less often simply because they are afraid of the mere sight of blood. But the victim who is shouting will receive more help than the one who is silent: a clear and unambiguous message about danger is perceived by more people.

13. We all want to be happy, but too much happiness produces negative impact on the work

Having surveyed more than 10 thousand people in 48 countries, the scientists found that happiness was more valuable than other personal prospects – finding the meaning of life, becoming rich, or going to heaven. Happy people are more likely to call themselves curious, whereas depressive people can notice even slight changes in their interlocutor’s facial expression. However, very happy people (9 out of 10 or 10 out of 10 points according to the scale measuring happiness) had poor academic performance and received a small salary, compared with moderately happy people (6, 7, 8 out of 10 points on the scale).

14. We are doing silly things to conform with others

During the study, a volunteer was sent to a group and was asked to answer the seemingly simple question. The group was instructed beforehand to give a clearly wrong answer. As a result, 37 of the 50 participants gave the wrong answer, repeating it after the majority (even though it was obvious the answer was wrong) just because they wanted to please the members of the group or thought that the majority was informed better than they were. This effect is not so evident when there is at least one person in the group who agrees with the participant of the experiment.

15. It is difficult to separate appearance from character


A positive or negative response to a person (“he is a nice guy”) affects our judgment about his appearance (“he is attractive”). This phenomenon is called the “halo effect.” It is very noticeable on the example of celebrities: their attractiveness and glory force us to believe that they are smart, happy or kind.

16. Not all types of awards affect us the same way

Waiting for an award reduces motivation. An unexpected award, on the contrary, increases motivation. A fixed reward is less effective than the reward whose amount varies depending on the quality of work.

17. Having access to power can greatly influence our emotions and behavior

During the prison experiment in Stanford, the volunteers were divided into two groups – “the prisoners” and “the guards” – and were placed in a kind of prison. Six days later, the experiment was finished (although it was planned for two weeks). The participants got used to their roles: “the guards” offended and abused “the prisoners”, and many “prisoners” demonstrated a strong emotional disturbance.

18. Power makes us obedient and can force us to do what we could not even imagine

In the famous Milgram’s experiment, the participants were asked to discharge electric current with an increasing force, if the tested person in the other room gave incorrect answers to questions. The role of the victim was carried out by the assisting experimenter. The participants first switched on weak current, but during the second part of the experiment they were asked to click on the “Danger: strong current” button, ignoring the victim’s request to stop the experiment. As a result, 63% of the participants pressed the button with the maximum discharge of electricity, which could have been fatal for the other person hadn’t the whole experiment been staged.

19. Self-control at an early age may indicate success in adult life

Another famous test was “The Marshmallow Experiment”. The child was left in the room with marshmallows and cookies lying on the table in front of him/her. The child was warned: he/she could eat a marshmallow (or a cookie) at once, and the experiment would be considered finished. But if the child waited for the return of the experimenter, he/she would receive two marshmallows as a reward.

The children, who could not wait and ate the marshmallows at once or tried to eat them secretly, were more likely to have problems at work in the future; they received low marks when trying to enter the university, had problems with attention at school and barely maintained friendly relations. This is a fact: the child who can wait for 15 minutes will score by half more points during the admission tests than the child who waited for only 30 seconds.

20. People like round numbers

This list contains 20 items instead of 19 for the same reason. This is also the cause why many people try to run 2 km rather than 1.9 km during a training session. Admiration for certain numbers is deeply embedded in the human nature.