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Rather than seeking global theories of human behavior, as are frequently found in personality theory, social psychology utilizes a wide range of specific theories for various kinds of social and cognitive phenomena. Here is a sampling of some of the more influential theories that can be found in this branch of psychology.
Attribution theory – is concerned with the ways in which people explain (or attribute) the behaviour of others. The theory divides the way people attribute causes to events into two types. External or "situational" attributions assign causality to an outside factor, such as the weather. Internal or "dispositional" attributions assign causality to factors within the person, such as ability or personality.
Cognitive dissonance – was originally based on the concept of cognitive consistency, but is now more related to self-concept theory. When people do something that violates their view of themselves, this causes an uncomfortable state of dissonance that motivates a change in either attitudes or behaviour (Festinger, 1957).
Drive theory – posits that the presence of an audience causes arousal which creates dominant or typical responses in the context of the situation.
Elaboration likelihood model – maintains that information processing, often in the case of a persuasion attempt can be divided into two separate processes based on the "likelihood of cognitive elaborations," that is, whether people think critically about the content of a message, or respond to superficial aspects of the message and other immediate cues.
Observational learning (social learning) – suggests that behaviour can be acquired by observation and imitation of others, unlike traditional learning theories which require reinforcement or punishment for learning to occur.
Schemata theory – focuses on "schemas" which are cognitive structures that organize knowledge and guide information processing. They take the form of generalized beliefs that can operate automatically and lead to biases in perception and memory.
Self-perception theory – emphasizes that we observe ourselves in the same manner that we observe others, and draw conclusions about our likes and dislikes. Extrinsic self perceptions can lead to the over-justification effect.
Self-verification theory – focuses on people’s desire to be known and understood by others. The key assumption is that once people develop firmly held beliefs about themselves, they come to prefer that others see them as they see themselves.
Social comparison theory – suggests that humans gain information about themselves, and make inferences that are relevant to self-esteem, by comparison to relevant others.
Social exchange theory – is an economic social theory that assumes human relationships are based on rational choice and cost-benefit analyses. If one partner's costs begin to outweigh his or her benefits, that person may leave the relationship, especially if there are good alternatives available.
Social identity theory – was developed by Henri Tajfel and examines how categorizing people (including oneself) into ingroups or outgroups affects perceptions, attitudes, and behavior.
Socioemotional selectivity theory – posits that as people age and their perceived time left in life decreases, they shift from focusing on information seeking goals to focusing on emotional goals.
System justification theory – proposes that people have a motivation to defend and bolster the status quo, in order to continue believing that their social, political, and economic systems are legitimate and just.
Triangular theory of love – by Sternberg, characterizes love in an interpersonal relationship on three different scales: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Different stages and types of love can be categorized by different combinations of these three elements.