Social psychology has been concerned, from its very conception, with understanding how human beings forge bonds with their peers and build a shared reality through which to transcend their individuality (and the finitude that accompanies it).

Social psychology has sought to explore the point of convergence between people and their relationships with other individuals or groups; unraveling an intangible reality where key aspects inhabit to define all that we are from an anthropological and cultural perspective.

In the present article a brief review of the most important theories of social psychology will be carried out, many of which are applicable in areas such as the clinic or human resources. Getting to know them is, without any of them, an exciting journey.

The most important theories of social psychology

Below we present, in a very summarized way, 40 of the elementary theories of social psychology. Many of them made great contributions to this field of knowledge, even in cases where they came from another area (such as basic psychology). In some cases, they deserve to be included in this list because of the striking nature of their proposals. All of them are, however, very interesting and worthy of being known.

1. Attachment theory

Theory whose purpose is to explore how we forge links with our attachment figures during childhood , deriving from this a safe/unsafe style on which our relationships with others are built even during adult life. This is not a deterministic proposal, since the dynamics of approaching or distancing oneself from others can change over the years, especially when we strengthen mature relationships that harbour transformative potential.

2. Attributional theory

Theory that aims to explore how human beings explain the behavior of others, so that the causes and effects that underlie it can be determined and internal traits can be inferred from them (such as personality, attitudes or even motivation); which come to be expressed in regular terms and allow expectations, desires and wishes to be determined. A distinction is made between internal (traits) and external (chance or circumstances) attributes for the observed behaviour.

3. Equilibrium theory

It explores the opinions that people hold regarding the relationship that is established between a human being and certain objects that are located in reality. The analysis allows people to choose what is in balance with their own perception of things that are susceptible to judgment , most likely choosing what is congruent with the vision we have of who we are (a friend who thinks like us, for example).

4. Theory of cognitive dissonance

It studies the way a human being can live with two ideas that conflict with each other, or how it is his experience when he develops acts that are incompatible with the personal values he thinks he has. With this, the aim is to know how we solve our inner paradoxes, and the affective or behavioural consequences that can be derived from them (minimization of the relevance of the behaviour, adoption of other principles, etc.). It is estimated, however, that dissonances can be motors for change.

5. Theory of Corresponding Inference

It is a theory that explores how individuals make judgments about the personality of others based on the way they act, generating internal and stable or external and unstable attributions. For example, if we observe someone behaving in a friendly way, we can infer that he presents the trait of kindness in a high degree (especially when he maintains a solid transit reiteration).

6. Drive theory

Theory that postulates that the human being expresses behaviors directed to reduce his impulses, which are based on needs and/or desires. Thus, one can distinguish primary impulses (which are necessary for the maintenance of life) and secondary impulses (which would be determined by the place and time in which one lives). All social acts would be included in the last of these categories, including achievements and self-realization.

7. Dual Process Theory

It is actually a group of theories, from which we explore the way in which people process information and try to solve their problems in different circumstances (including social ones).

One of the elementary points lies in the existence of two totally different strategies (hence the name): one fast/automatic (intuitive, spontaneous and superficial) and the other parsimonious (deep and systematic). Each of them requires different brain regions.

8. Dynamic Systems Theory

This is a theory aimed at studying the changes that occur in stable phenomena , and the nature of these changes. Two independent models can be distinguished: the one that focuses on how events change as a result of the passage of time and the one that is interested in the change derived from the multiple interactions that occur between the elements that form a system (individuals, groups, etc.).

9. Theory of equity

It focuses on the dynamics that are established in interpersonal relationships, or even those of a person with respect to a group. It explores specific judgements about the value that is often attributed to the bond that is forged with others, and the equitable or unfair nature of the exchange that is manifested in it. It seeks the study of the counterweights that derive from struggles for power, and the consolidation of symmetrical or horizontal roles .

10. Exhaust Theory

Theory that explores the tendency to develop a distancing behavior in the face of social phenomena that are perceived as aversive or unpleasant. It is generally used in the context of some problems of a relational nature, such as social anxiety, to account for specific mechanisms by which they are maintained over time (or even worsened). As can be seen, it is a theoretical model of practically limited use in the clinical setting.

11. Excitation transfer theory

This is a theory that explains the way in which a concrete emotional activation in the face of a past situation can condition how current events are dealt with that are similar to that one.

Through the model, certain reactions to an event are explained, which may seem excessive if contemplated in isolation, but which become reasonable based on some previous experience that directly interferes with its expression.

12. Implicit Personality Theory

Theory that tries to explain the way in which human beings tend to “connect” certain features with different ones, or to trace the way in which they would covariates. Thus, it would be understood that certain ways of acting are associated with others (having a sense of humor and being very intelligent, for example), conditioning the perception that can be projected with respect to the others (in a stereotyped and very arbitrary way). Here, phenomena such as the halo effect would have a place.

13. Inoculation theory

It explains the way in which human beings can reinforce their convictions when exposed to stimuli that threaten them moderately , with an insufficient intensity to destroy the identification with them, but that supposes a certain degree of reflection and elaboration, from which the original idea is strengthened and iron defensive systems are built before some new attempt of persuasion.

14. Interdependency theory

The theory of interdependence identifies that a person’s behavior and thinking cannot be explained only by the individual experiences he or she has had throughout life, but also by the relationships he or she has forged with others in the context of shared experiences. What one is, therefore, would depend on oneself and how one relates to others.

15. Narcissistic Reactance Theory

It is a theory designed to explain how certain personality traits make rejection a trigger for action, in order to regain a supposed freedom taken away by the refusal of others. It has been used very often to explain acts of rape or sexual harassment in those who have some narcissistic trait , with spite being understood as the trigger for this behaviour.

16. Theory of objectivation

Theory that focuses on the private experience of women living in societies where their bodies are treated as objects of a sexual nature, which positions them in the vision of themselves as beings devoid of genuine depth, and which can only be valued to the extent that they adapt to the general canon of beauty that is imposed as a cardinal criterion of desirability.

17. Opposing Process Theory

It is a theory that comes from the basic branch of psychology, but has been widely used in the social field. It points out that a certain emotion, which arises in the face of particular events, is immediately (and even overlapped) followed by an opposite one (A and B respectively). This explains why an overexposure ends up compensating the initial response (A) until it disappears.

18. Theory of optimal distinctiveness

This theory is based on two basic needs of every human being: that of belonging and that of identity (being oneself). It explains how we integrate the basic characteristics of a group as our own, in order to reconcile what would otherwise be an unsolvable dilemma. The uniqueness of the individual would be maintained, interacting with the traits of the group to form a new reality that transcends the sum of the parts.

19. Realistic Group Conflict Theory

It is a theory aimed at explaining how two groups enter into direct confrontation based on variables unrelated to the shared identity of their members. It refers to the competitiveness for providing themselves with limited resources as the fundamental source of all their squabbles , which may be physical (such as territory or food) or psychological (such as power or social status). It has been used especially in tribal societies and in ethnographic works from social anthropology.

20. Theory of reasoned action

It is a model whose aim is none other than to predict the behaviour of human beings based on their intention to carry out some change . In this sense, it includes the individual’s disposition towards the goal being pursued, that of the group to which he/she belongs and the existing social pressure. From the confluence of all this, it will be possible to estimate the probability of carrying out actions aimed at modifying habits or customs. It has been widely used in the field of health.

21. Regulatory focus theory

It studies how a person adjusts his or her search for pleasure and escape from pain, which are inherent in human nature, in the context of the demands and pressures of the environment. The theory studies the internal process (thoughts) and the external behaviour, both aimed at reconciling these needs in accordance with the different spaces of functioning. It has been applied, above all, to the organizational sphere.

22. Theory of relational models

It studies four fundamental dimensions : communality (what the subjects of an endogroup share and what differentiates them from the ex-group), authority (legitimacy of the hierarchies that underlie all relationships), equality (comparable treatment between individuals who are located in the same stratum or level) and the market price (valuation of the incentives or gains that are acquired with employment according to a social standard). The confluence of all of these would be important in regulating interactions among members of society.

23. Role Theory

It explores the way in which people adopt various roles in the social spaces in which they participate or in which they display their daily lives, and their relevant attributions, together with the expectations related to each of them. It is a basic component for understanding the systemic links that keep human groups together, from which their internal and external functioning is consolidated.

24. Theory of self-assertion

This theory is based on an inherent need of any person: to feel adequate and good, or to believe in possession of traits that are considered desirable in the environment in which one lives (and which may fluctuate over time). This is intended to ensure a private sense of existential congruence, while maintaining the safeguard of emotional integrity. It is a factor related to self-esteem and self-efficacy .

25. Theory of self-categorization

This theory assumes that the members of a group continue to maintain their identity and their own character, despite being part of a large group with which they identify.

According to this same model, the individual characteristics would be maintained in certain contexts, while in others what would predominate would be attributions inherent to communality, reconciling both within the space in which the action is deployed and according to the demands of it.

26. Theory of self-determination

This theory introduces three basic needs that need to be met for a person to function genuinely: relationship (links with others), autonomy (power of individual choice and real independence) and competence (confidence in the ability to perform tasks successfully). When this happens, the individual would show the tendency (of innate order) towards his own unique development, in a proactive and integrated way. This theory has its roots in humanism.

27. Theory of self-discrepancy

Explains how two people, who share the same goal for their lives, can express different feelings in the face of identical events , in which the losses they experience are also comparable. He concludes that it depends on the way in which such goals are interpreted, which may be perceived as challenges and hopes or as impositions, so that the emotional response would vary in one or another case (because of its secondary meaning).

28. Theory of self-expansion

This theory delves into the basic processes of social influence, through which we can appreciate an expansion of our own identity as we share moments and places with certain people we trust. Thus, we gradually adopt some of the characteristics that define them, assuming them as our own and integrating them into our intimate attitudinal repertoire. Therefore, a sort of “contagion” would take place at the emotional and cognitive level.

29. Theory of self-perception

This theory explains that by acting in spaces of great ambiguity (where we are not quite sure what to think or feel), we proceed to emphasize attention to our own behaviors and feelings as models/guides to determine where we stand in relation to them and what happens within them. It is similar to the attributional process that is carried out with respect to others, although it is oriented towards the interior and starts from what is perceived to estimate what is believed.

30. Theory of self-verification

The theory is based on the will that we have that society values and recognizes us in the same way that we perceive ourselves . Thus, if we believe that we are shy or happy, we will look for others to consider us in the same way, in order to socially validate basic characteristics of what we are. This congruence would allow the consolidation of self-image in the social environment.

31. Sexual Economic Theory

This is a theory that starts from the premise that sex is something that women have and that men desire (including every act of physical contact), and therefore positions both sexes in a situation of disparity . In the model, men should show to whom they are pretending to be worthy of sufficient emotional and material resources to be selected as a potential romantic partner. It is now considered obsolete.

32. Social exchange theory

This theory studies the way in which interpersonal relationships are initiated and maintained, taking into account the perceived balance between the costs and benefits attributed to them . Thus, the continuity or termination of a link would depend on how these parameters interact, with the conclusion of the link being precipitated when losses substantially exceed gains. The variables considered are material, affective, etc.

33. Theory of social identity

The theory of social identity postulates that people build what they are from the relationships they forge with the groups they belong to , to the extent that they identify with their distinctive features and adopt them as their own. This theory places special emphasis on common experiences, expectations of action, collective norms and social pressure; above individual experience and outside of exchanges with the endo-group.

34. Social impact theory

It determines the persuasive potential of all groups on the basis of three variables, namely: strength (influence or salience), proximity (physical or psychological distance) and the number of people in the group (which has an impact on the degree of perceived social pressure). As the levels in any (or all) of these variables increase, the groups become abstract entities with a greater capacity to attract people.

35. Theory of stress assessment

According to this theory, stressful situations are evaluated in two successive phases , although in some way related. Firstly, their objective characteristics and/or the personal relevance of the event are determined, while in the second phase it is determined whether resources are available to successfully deal with everything. This theory emphasizes the role of social support because of its ability to mediate the relationship between stress and its impact on an emotional level.

36. Symbolic Interactionism

According to this theoretical model, which arose from pragmatism, there is no reality that human beings can capture per se . Or what is the same, there are no facts devoid of subjectivity; rather, they are understood to the extent that the person bases his reality on the context of his social exchange, which is imbued in the culture of the group and even of society at a macrosystemic level.

37. Theory of Mind

The theory of mind highlights a facet of neurological and social development, by which the ability to identify that others harbor mental states different from one’s own is made possible. From this moment on, it becomes viable to infer their motivations or affects, as well as their integration and/or empathic understanding. It is a key element to understand prosocial behaviours and altruism .

38. Theory of planned behavior

It is a theory designed for predicting behavior, perhaps the best known today. It has three basic axes in its formulation: attitudes (principles, values and future expectations about one’s own behaviour), the subjective norm (expectations of others and pressure from the environment) and perceived control (internal attribution for options of change and absence or scarcity of external barriers). It is used in the clinic setting to assess change in attitudes and habits.

39. Triangular theory of love

The triangular theory of love was formulated for the understanding of couple’s bonds, but it can be applied to all types of relationships. Three main components are postulated, from which a healthy relationship is built : passion (desire for contact and closeness), intimacy (capacity to share the intimate and build the confluence of a “we”) and commitment (willingness to stay together as time goes by). The presence or absence of one or the other determines the type of bond (couple, friendship, etc.).

40. Terror Management Theory

This theory is based on a cognitive dissonance, which arises from the desire to be participants in life and the inherent need to accept its finiteness . A deep anguish emerges from this, for which it is protected by the beliefs of the social group about the continuity of life in a place beyond one’s own death. This is the most basic mechanism to overcome the abyss that arises when we recognize our vulnerability.

Bibliographic references:

  • Avais, M., Wassan, A., Chandio, R. and Shaikh, M. (2014). Importance of Social Psychology in the Society. Educational Research International. 3, 63-67. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2519104.
  • Greenwood, J. (2014). The Social in Social Psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 8(7), 104-119.