Why to bury a Porsche: A future in social psychology
When I started my Bachelor of Psychology in Groningen, I aimed to become a human resource manager at some point in my career. Yet after a while, I realized that I was more attracted by societal than business topics. So I buried my dreams of soon riding a Porsche and decided to pursue the ever reoccurring dream of young people: to make the world just a little better.
Now here I am, doing a Research Master in social psychology at the University of Groningen, training to become another (small) star in the ‘academic firmament’. I feel that there is plenty of dark space left at the horizon for more future researchers to contribute. Therefore, I would like to share with you what motivates me to work through pillars of scientific papers and floods of data every day. And maybe, if you ever consider applying for a master designed to make you a future researcher in social psychology, this blog post can help you to make an educated decision.
The most fascinating thing about social psychology is that it is all around us. Whenever I spend time with fellow students, we cannot help but try to explain everything in social psychological terms. I guess that is a ‘sickness’ you have in many professions (never try to have a dinner party with a group of medicine students, discussing heart transplants will not increase your appetite), yet the point with social psychology is that its object of study – human social interaction – is simply omnipresent. Even when you are just watching a television advert, the person who designed this ad indirectly interacts with you – most likely trying to make you buy something you will never need (do you remember that handy set of salad spinner you bought lately?).
“What does distinguish social psychology from other disciplines of psychology?”
When I am asked this question, I often say that social psychology is about ‘normal’ people. Even though this answer is somewhat simplistic, it can help to illustrate what social psychology does. In a nutshell it investigates how human beings behave “on average” in a given situation. Consequently, social psychology often studies behaviours and thoughts we all encounter.
Let me illustrate the importance of social psychological research for our lives: When I tell you that it is important that riot police is strongly present at the beginning of a demonstration to discourage violent excesses, this sounds intuitive, right? But what if I told you that current research and success of changed police strategies suggest exactly the opposite: conflicts are less likely to escalate when only regular police officers on patrol are visible (1) – sounds just as intuitive, doesn’t it? Not only in this subfield called ‘crowd psychology’ can social psychologists offer clarification and a scientific alternative to (often faulty) common sense policy making. They can also advise you about the design of anti-prejudice campaigns, or help to develop interventions that encourage sustainable use of energy resources.
“Why would you want to deal with all the tiring research methodology and statistics?”
By now you may be convinced of the practical relevance and social impact of social psychological research – yet, why would you want to deal with all the tiring research methodology and statistics? I can only advise you to look at it from a completely different perspective: Developing research is like creating a piece of art. If you just dare to be creative enough, you can design the most astonishing studies (2). Possible research tools reach from an experiment conducted in a university lab to a group interview with a community in a small Indian village. Moreover, when it comes to statistics, I like to look at it as a big puzzle. You put together the pieces and slowly emerges a new interesting insight. And at least I definitely prefer insight to the sight of slower cars in my dream car’s rearview mirror.
(1) Reicher, S., Stott, C., Drury, J., Adang, O., Cronin, P., & Livingstone, A. (2007). Knowledge-Based Public Order Policing: Principles and Practice. Policing, 1(4), 403-415. doi: 10.1093/police/pam067
(2) For classical examples of creative experimental set-ups see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuvGh_n3I_M or (from developmental psychology) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX_oy9614HQ
NOTE: Image by SmokedSalmon at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Hi Frederik, thanks for sharing your experiences and ideas with future Research Master students! Concerning social psychology, I wondered what you meant with “In a nutshell it investigates how human beings behave “on average” in a given situation.” It seems this statement doesn’t accurately represent social psychology’s focus on contextual influences on behavior, i.e. in variability around the mean. E.g. concerning social interactions, how people behave towards others is heavily influenced by who they are talking to, what time of the day it is, how their mood is, whether they have been drinking alcohol, etc, etc… Did I misunderstand what you were trying to say?
Nice post, Frederik. I propose to aim for making the world a lot better and to be satisfied if you succeed in making it “just a little better.” But I agree that this will probably give someone more satisfaction than driving a Porsche. Good luck!
Also, you have to be over fifty and have gray hair to drive a Porsche.
Thank you for your interest in my blog-post. Even though I find the discussion on the demographics of Porsche-drivers an interesting one, I decided to not get into further detail about this topic here. However, I would like to address the thoughtful comment on my one sentence summary on the nature of social psychology. My intention was to contrast social psychology to other fields of psychology (mainly clinical psychology), which are generally assumed to be concerned with deviant behavior. The condensation of the nature of a whole subfield of science into a single sentence ultimately has to be inaccurate to some degree. Being mainly focused on the topic of collective action, I might indeed not have emphasized the factor of individual differences sufficiently. However, I meant the wording ‘in a given situation’ to be interpreted broadly, it can account for many contextual influences and situational circumstances. In a given situation (e.g. at a party) people might be influenced by their alcohol consumption and the lateness of the hour; given these circumstances social psychology assume most individuals to behave in a similar fashion. In my understanding this is what allows social scientists to generalize their research findings.