What is health and social psychology and why should we care?

Whenever I tell someone that I am studying psychology, the most common response I get is “oh, so you’re going to be a psychiatrist?” When I clarify that I am doing research related to health and social psychology, I am usually met with some confusion about what that means. Because the average person may not be too familiar with the areas of health and social psychology, we thought it would be practical to have a special extra post this week giving a broad overview of the importance of health and social psychology before we jump into a more focused approach as to why psychology matters.

Social psychology studies how the presence of others can influence our thoughts and behaviors. The presence of others does not even need to be real; simply imagining the presence of another person or assuming what another person is thinking can have an effect on the way we think and act. This makes social psychology a relevant and relatable field, because to some extent, all of our behavior is influenced by our perceptions of others and our interactions with them.

Social psychology is important because it helps explain why we think and act the way we do in a way that affords us the opportunity to address what is harmful, promote what is beneficial, and better empathize with others. For example, Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience studies demonstrated situations in which normal people with no hints of psychopathy or cruelty would be willing to inflict harm on another person just because a person with power told them to do so. This knowledge led to the discovery of ways to alter the situation so that people would not feel obligated to inflict harm, and showed that people who do terrible things in certain situations may not necessarily be evil people. When we understand the underlying reasons why people think and behave the way they do, we can realize the flaws in our own thinking, be more sympathetic to others who act in the same way, and work together to overcome problematic thoughts and actions.

Of similar importance is the field of health psychology. If there is one thing everyone can agree on, it is that it is good to be healthy. Illnesses can be painful and interfere with daily life, doctor visits and medications can be expensive, and poor health leads to shorter life expectancies. It is easy to think of health in strictly biological terms and assume psychology only deals with mental health issues and brain-based diseases. While treating mental illness is a major component of psychology, health psychology dedicated to identifying the factors that cause and influence physical, mental, and social health problems

Health psychology examines health from a biopsychosocial standpoint, meaning that it looks at the biological components of health, red flags in the social environment, and by considering how we think, feel, and behave in regards to health. If we conceptualize health as purely biological, we miss a host of factors that play into overall health. For instance if we view having a heart attack as simply a blockage an artery, we may miss that chronic stress increases likelihood of heart disease, that diet and exercise habits contribute to clogged arteries, that heart disease tends to affect certain populations more than others, and more. Understanding the blend of biological, psychological, and social factors helps us not only treat a heart attack when it happens, but also allows us to identify at-risk populations, design interventions to increase heart health, target the causes, and control for the influences that worsen the illness and impede recovery.

So, why do these two areas of psychology matter? They matter because they concern understanding the underlying mechanisms behind things that affect our everyday lives. Once you understand the core components of why people think or do what they do, you can start predicting and influencing behavior to create a better general wellbeing. This thought is a major interest of this blog, and will be related to much of what we post in the future. This week was slightly odd in that we posted two articles, but next week we’re going to start with our regular format of posting a new article every Friday.

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