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Applied Social Psychology & Counselling


One of the problems of being a student of psychology is they learn everything in modules and pass examinations in separate areas of the subject. These can lead to disjointed understanding – a failure to connect the dots. This paper is an attempt to marry the insights of Social Psychology and Counselling practice. Can counsellors learn some wider insights from social research? I will explore an example of classical research and try to see how it can benefit the counsellor in practice.


Most psychology students even after graduation cannot always see the connection between one area of psychological knowledge and another – even well known psychologists manage to come up with “new” ideas which clearly are not – but where their subconscious has dragged two facts together to make a correlation that show a new idea – not that one may cause the other. For example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is used by many counsellors, psychiatrists and medical counsellors yet few understand that its principals lie squarely with Freudian thinking.

Counsellors are not always educated in psychology and many learn their knowledge in short courses designed by colleges and universities to one standard or another. What ever way you look at it their knowledge is often full of gaps. This is mainly because of the tendency to train in only one school of thought, i.e. CBT, psychodynamics, psychotherapy and other areas – but limited often to a particular theory or school of thought. This leads to the same situation as our learned friends re-inventing the wheel. Many counsellors on my own seminars are surprised when you present something novel and then tell them who actually came up with the notion – then they all sigh – oooohhh! I would like here to present some samples using social psychological research and how we can marry the knowledge to help us become better counsellors and even better researchers of our own practice.

Social Psychology – an idea!

What is Social Psychology anyway – it is the scientific study of how people think about, are influenced and relate to one another in a social world (Myers 2005). It investigates three areas of our being, one is our social thinking, how we see ourselves in the world, the second how we are influenced by society, its culture and traditions, within and without groups and third by our social relations, in prejudice, aggression, attraction also altruism towards other people and from them to ourselves. This then is the social world we live in. Most psychology is based on what the individual is doing, learning, thinking and feeling, but we are not alone in this world – we are part of a family, a community, a city, a country, a culture and all this creates a reality for our daily lives.

Counselling – a way!

Of course the purpose of counselling has always been focused on the individual (except Transactional Analysis – the only therapy based on relationships directly). This mean that in counselling sessions it is the individual’s problems being addressed and dealt with in a therapeutic environment, leading to a resolution for the client, but not for the world he has to deal with when he leaves the comfort of the therapists office.

Social Psychology – thinking outside the box!

We all create our own reality – no two people will agree on a shared view even when witnessing the same event. This is because we come to every event with preconceptions about the world – we often call this common sense. However common sense is often untested and can be interpretated many ways. Paul Lazersfeld (1949) asked some subjects to view some common sense statements and asked if the subjects agreed with the notions stated.

1.Better-educated soldiers suffered more adjustment problems than did less-educated soldiers. (Intellectuals were less prepared for battle than stresses than street-smart-people.)

2.Southern soldiers coped better with the hot South Sea Island climate than did Northern soldiers. (Southerners were accustomed to hot weather).

3.White privates were more eager for promotion than were Black privates. (Years of oppression take a toll on achievement motivation).

4.Southern Blacks preferred Southern to Northern officers (because Southern officers were more experienced and skilled in interacting with Blacks). (Myers 2005)

Many of Lazersfelds’ subjects stated that the above statements were obvious and found no difficulty in agreeing with them. As you might have guessed the reality was actually the opposite in every case. Lazersfeld in fact reported that the less educated soldiers suffered more, there was no real difference in climate adjustment, Blacks were more eager for promotion etcetera. In everyday life we experience listening to others people’s common sense and never really question it – this is often because they are stated as hindsight (after the event has happened). We take the attitude of “see I told you that is what it would be like” but before the event this is not so easy. In today’s society we like to find scapegoats for political mistakes, industrial accidents, car crashes – someone has to be blamed – they should have known. It is easy after the facts are known to attribute blame to someone – who at the time probably were no wiser that anyone else. In the 9/11 disaster, the security forces had intelligence that could have stopped the terrorists but it was amongst the millions of other bits of useless information. After 9/11 people were surprised this information was ignored.

Social Psychology informs Counselling – 1

From the above example how can we use this information in our counselling sessions? How can we judge that our client’s sense of reality is correct -that they are not talking about common mis-sense or even using hindsight to interpret a past event? We could try the following questions to the client to try and elicit a sense of what went before.

1.What were you thinking prior to the event?

2.Did you always believe this?

3.Do you think others agree with your view?

4.How has this event changed the way you might act in the future?

Case Study: -1

Mary is raped; she has been through the court process and seen the man convicted. A year later she is unable to form new relationships with men. She makes the following statement:

“Men are all the same – takers, liars, untrustworthy and brutal. I always knew they would hurt me one day, take my dignity away from me, and stop me from living my life with-out fear. Since I was a little girl I have feared men. They are all the same when you get right down to it – sexual dirty beasts.”

Therapist: Tell me Mary, what were you thinking prior to the event?

Mary: Well, I was happy, enjoying the party, dancing with some guys, having good fun. I guess I was thinking I was safe here and just happy to be with such exciting people.

Therapist: You say that men are all alike – when did you start believing this?

Mary: Look what happened to me! You give them a chance and they betray you. He said just a kiss outside, just a hug, I wanted that too, but when you give them that inch they take a mile. I knew then I should have said no.

Therapist: Do you feel other girls feel the same about men?

Mary: Perhaps they should, and then fewer girls would suffer like I did. However most girls are stupid and think they can handle men in any circumstances. Silly fools.

Therapist: If you go to a party or similar now – how might you behave towards men?

Mary: Well never be alone with any man – no matter how nice he is. Make sure you tell you friends where you are and who you are with. Better still do not go to the party in the first place.

Summery: – 1

You can see from Mary’s answers to our set questions she has taken up a new global view of men, a new way of behaving, she has used hindsight to create a new memory of the event. Prior to the event Mary had no such cautious thinking about men; she certainly did not have a global ideation. Her statement about, I should have known, is pure hindsight after the event, she even finds a suitable saying to confirm her thinking, an inch over a mile, the opposite could be, one small step is all it takes to your desired goal. Prior to the rape she was more than trusting to go outside and enjoy this man’s company and wished to be kissed and hugged. (This is not a justification for her rape merely looking at her own thinking). When asked how others might feel – she quickly adopts a “I know better approach”, she is really talking about herself prior to the rape, her personal belief in the ability to handle men, but now in hindsight seeing herself as the silly girl. Mary comes to therapy because she is finding it hard to make new relationships yet in answer to the last question – she effectively answers her own problem. She has created a new reality for herself in which no man can be trusted and therefore safer to be alone and avoid situations where she might meet similar men to her attacker (or any man).

After this session our counsellor can reflect on Mary’s new perspective, her new common sense view, her fear of future relationships and the real matter of trust. Maybe she will need many challenging session before she can return to some semblance of the happy girl she once was but in trauma this of course takes time.

The purpose of this exercise was however to show how we can use some notions from Social Psychology in our counselling practice.

Social Psychology – Who am I?

Central to social psychology is the idea of the “self” in a social environment. Our social identity is our sense of who we are in our private thoughts and in a community – our group identity for instance. When asked the question, “who am I?” , we tend to list our concept about our appearance, so we may answer, a man, a woman, tall, short, fat, thin, black, white. We may then talk of our social self, doctor, housewife, engineer, unemployed, these are our social roles. We then espouse our achievement, graduate, and noble laureate. Then we may talk about our knowledge of ourselves in the sense of our character, kind, happy, clever, superstitious. Finally about our feelings of self-worth, am I good person, do I help others, do people like me?

As we do not live in isolation (unless you are a hermit) we are constantly adjusting ourselves to our situations, we may have some enduring traits across many situations such as, patience, kindness or risk taking and self-interest. However we do change our thinking and image to more often fit the situation we find ourselves in at any one time. Culture can make a huge difference to a situation and how we think and behave. Markus and Kitayama (1991) investigated the concept of the independent Westerner and the interdependent Easterner. The Westerner is surrounded by people such as mother, father, siblings, friends, co-workers and those who they serve or are serviced by, (shops etc). In the West they acknowledge the relationships with others but in the East they see themselves as deeply embedded in the lives of others. This has a huge impact on the concept of yourself image. The independent person is defined by individual traits and goals that are personal to them; the interdependent person is socially defined by connections with others. When asked what matters in life the independent will reply – me, my personal achievements, the interdependent will reply – we, the family, the group. The independent disapproves of conformity while the interdependent dislikes egotism in people. One group may feel they are controlling the world and the other is being controlled by the world (or events).Social Psychology informs Counselling -2

If the self is central to our thinking, our behaviour and our feelings then counselling should try to find out the core of a clients being in order to understand his position in society and life. How can we truly understand the client and their need for growth or resolution without knowing more about their starting point? Our therapist needs to ask some fundamental questions to elicit an overview of a person’s situation. Here are just six examples:

1.Tell me how you see yourself – physically.

2.Tell me how you believe others see you?

3.What roles do you have in society, work, home etc?

4.If I met you for the first time – what would my impression of you be?

5.Do you think you are a good person?

6.If you see a beggar in the street how do you react?

Case Study – 2

John has come to therapy to achieve some personal growth. He is fundamentally happy in life, has a good job, nice family and has few dramas in his life beyond the normal stressors of money and mortgages. However he is feeling unfulfilled and wishes to explore his potential for growth as a person.

Therapist: If I came from Mars and saw you – how would I report back to my superiors what you looked like in comparison to others I met?

John: That’s a tough question, I do not normally think about how I look beyond being suitably dressed for the occasion, i.e. for work or going out. If pushed I would say tall, maybe too thin, balding but still not ugly, keep clean and I am soft spoken. I guess as a Martian if you compare me too others I may be seen as dull, routine type and not very exciting.

Therapist: So if I was to tell your best friend that description would they recognise you?

John: hahahah I doubt it. When I am with my friends I am more casual, more relaxed and maybe even a little outgoing – take a risk now and again. I remember lots of jokes and amuse my friends with the telling. They always kid me I’m in danger of being blown away as I have no weight and keep eating all the time to keep on the ground.

Therapist: What is your role in society – what do you see as important?

John: I am a father first and foremost and then, of course equally, my wife’s husband. I think family is important more so than work although you have to have both in order to survive. I am an engineer by trade but now-days I mostly work in an office using a computer to create design papers. The work is steady and important but not essential to the well-being of mankind. I mentor at a children’s club once a week, you know the sort of thing, keeping them off the streets and occupied. I enjoy the way they look up to me as their advisor in so many areas of teenage concern.

Therapist: If my assistant walked in here now and said hello to you what impression would she form of you? If I asked her later to tell me what might she say?

John: She might say who was that boring guy you were with? It hurt my neck to look up at him. If I had a ladder he might be ok?

Therapist: Are you a good person John?

John: Well I have never intentially hurt anyone as far as I know. I think I do more than most for my local community. So, yes I would say I was good over-all.

Therapist: There are many beggars in the streets now-days, if you saw one outside what is your reaction to them?

John: I have to be honest here and say I do not always sympathise with them. I feel they may not be as poor as they pretend to be. You know a day of collecting then back to the car and home to the wife. I saw a beggar collect $5 from a bus cue, I worked out in a day he could collect maybe $200, that is $1000 every five days, $4000 a month – most people have to work really hard to get that sort of money. So now I only give to the ones I can be really sure about.

Summery: – 2

First we should re-examine the purpose of the questions;

Tell me how you see yourself – physically.

This question helps to breakdown the person’s self concept -their mirror image of themselves. What does it tell us? In our example John is a conformist; he dresses to expectations of others, and cares about his impression on others as in his remark about being clean.

Tell me how you believe others see you?

This is a checking question about the first. You can see here John does not repeat the first description but his more social self when relaxed and surrounded by those he trusts. Outside of his circle John conforms to expectations.

What roles do you have in society, work, home etc?

This question is to see how he fits into the world he inhabits. John clearly show a preference for safe roles, father, husband but when he talks about his outside roles he is clearly not so happy and fulfilled by work or his professional self.

If I met you for the first time – what would my impression of you be?

Here we are testing out the self-image again. John self-abases himself as he believes women react to his tallness and being thin. He believe he may look like the target of humour especially women.

Do you think you are a good person?

In this question we are looking for character traits, here John emphasises his contribution to the community, over exaggerates his role and minimises that of others. He wants to be seen as the good man.

If you see a beggar in the street how do you react?

This again is the checking question for the previous one about being good. Here John justifies what being good is – that it is situational for him. The beggar makes too much money therefore I do not have to give. I’m still a good man though? Self justification gives rise to thinking and behaviour to suit our prejudices.

John came for personal growth to be able to be more in his world than just the normal person. John feels he is unfulfilled by life and from our questions we can see the image he holds of himself and his personal reality. Now the counsellor is not dealing with a problem of growth but a problem of image and self interest. From the findings of social psychology the counselling can be better informed and have a better base from which to suggest change and insight.


This paper set out to show how a study of social psychology could help counsellors become better questioners and more informed about how people see themselves, their personal reality and concept of worth in a social world. In the two example case studies we can see the practical application of the findings from research in this area. Of course social psychology is a huge area of study and in this paper we have only scratched the surface of social thinking. Social influence and social relations can also inform us – such areas as obedience, conformity, conflict resolution and many other areas where people influence people either by the situation, or by the traits and characters of others, in transactions of our social world.


Myers, .D (2005) Social Psychology, Posts & Telecom Press, China – McGraw Hill Publishing. USA.

I recommend the above text for a introduction to the area for first timers, however if you are more advanced then the study texts for social psychology from the Open University in England is far more superior in explanation of content.

Professor Stephen F. Myler PhD (Psych)