Taking another look at the roots of social psychology

January 18, 2012

Psychology textbooks have made the same historical mistake over and over. Now the inaccuracy is pointed out in a new article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

For generations, social psychology students have read that Norman Triplett did the first social psychology experiment in 1889, when he found that children reeled in a fishing line faster when they were in the presence of another child than when they were alone.

But almost everything about that sentence is wrong. The new paper's author, Wolfgang Stroebe of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, had recently published a handbook on the history of social psychology (with Aria W. Kruglanski) when he came across a 2005 reanalysis of Triplett's data and dug farther.

It turned out that the children in the study were turning a reel, but not reeling in a fishing line, and that Triplett was studying whether children performed better with competition. For his study, he eyeballed the data--an acceptable scientific practice in the 19th century--and decided that some children performed better when competing, some performed worse, and others were not affected. The 2005 analysis found that these results were not statistically significant by modern standards.

So the modern textbooks have the details of the study wrong. But they're also wrong that Triplett was the first psychologist to look at how people are affected by each other.

In the 1880s, Max Ringelmann studied whether workers pulled harder when they were together than when they worked alone. In 1894, Binet and Henri published a study of social influence among children and in 1887, Charles Féré authored a book that described experiments on how the presence of others could increase individual performance. But the field didn't find its modern identity until 1924, says Stroebe, when Floyd Allport published a textbook defining social psychology as the experimental study of social behavior.

"I think the more interesting fact is that in the 1890s so many authors tried to answer questions relevant to social psychology with experimental methods," Stroebe says. "This is much more important than to figure out who was really the first author."

It's time to fix the textbooks, Stroebe says. "I especially tried to get the article into a major journal in the hope that authors will take more notice of it than of articles published in historical journals." He thinks his paper is important even though it isn't at the cutting edge of research. "I was trained many decades ago in a period where one would have considered correcting the history of the origin of an important subfield of psychology to be important," Stroebe writes in the conclusion of his article. "We even had a word for it. We called it scholarship."
-end-
For more information about this study, please contact: Wolfgang Stroebe at w.stroebe@uu.nl.

Perspectives on Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. It publishes an eclectic mix of thought-provoking articles on the latest important advances in psychology. For a copy of the article "The Truth About Triplett (1898), But Nobody Seems to Care" and access to other Perspectives on Psychological Science research findings, please contact Divya Menon at 202-293-9300 or dmenon@psychologicalscience.org.

Association for Psychological Science

Related Psychology Articles from Brightsurf:

More than one cognition: A call for change in the field of comparative psychology
In a paper published in the Journal of Intelligence, researchers argue that cognitive studies in comparative psychology often wrongly take an anthropocentric approach, resulting in an over-valuation of human-like abilities and the assumption that cognitive skills cluster in animals as they do in humans.

Psychology research: Antivaxxers actually think differently than other people
As vaccine skepticism has become increasingly widespread, two researchers in the Texas Tech University Department of Psychological Sciences have suggested a possible explanation.

In court, far-reaching psychology tests are unquestioned
Psychological tests are important instruments used in courts to aid legal decisions that profoundly affect people's lives.

Psychology program for refugee children improves wellbeing
A positive psychology program created by researchers at Queen Mary University of London focuses on promoting wellbeing in refugee children.

Psychology can help prevent deadly childhood accidents
Injuries have overtaken infectious disease as the leading cause of death for children worldwide, and psychologists have the research needed to help predict and prevent deadly childhood mishaps, according to a presentation at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

Raising the standard for psychology research
Researchers from Stanford University, Arizona State University, and Dartmouth College used Texas Advanced Computing Center supercomputers to apply more rigorous statistical methods to psychological studies of self-regulation.

Psychology: Robot saved, people take the hit
To what extent are people prepared to show consideration for robots?

Researchers help to bridge the gap between psychology and gamification
A multi-disciplinary research team is bridging the gap between psychology and gamification that could significantly impact learning efforts in user experience design, healthcare, and government.

Virtual reality at the service of psychology
Our environment is composed according to certain rules and characteristics which are so obvious to us that we are scarcely aware of them.

Modeling human psychology
A human being's psychological make-up depends on an array of emotional and motivational parameters.

Read More: Psychology News and Psychology Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.