Social Psychology Concepts Explained Using Examples From Pop Culture

Jarren Nylund
18 min readJan 12, 2023


The following are 10 concepts from social psychology simply explained using examples from popular television shows and films.

  1. Social identity theory.
  2. Physical attractiveness and the halo effect.
  3. Attitude structure and function.
  4. Attitude change resistance strategies.
  5. Social influence — compliance / social commitment tactics / foot-in-the-door technique.
  6. Groups and belonging — group type and the need to belong (including the social surrogacy hypothesis).
  7. Prejudice and prejudice reduction—discrimination / social identity theory / integrated threat theory.
  8. Antisocial behaviour—aggression / deindividuation / bystander effect.
  9. Wrongdoing and forgiveness —interpersonal transgressions / apology / forgiveness / self-forgiveness.
  10. Love and attraction — three-factor theory of love / Sternberg’s triangular theory of love / attraction.

The article below discusses relevant plot points of the television shows and films discussed to help illustrate the various concepts from social psychology. For those who have yet to watch particular episodes or films and don’t wish to have their stories spoiled, please refrain from reading the sections that discuss them.

1. Social Identity Theory

The Expanse (Season 2, Episode 8 — “Pyre”)

The video below is a short clip from the episode. The full episode is available on Prime Video.

The Expanse is a science fiction television show that is about a future where humanity has colonised the solar system, and where there are three main social divisions:
• Earth, “Earthers,” United Nations (UN)
• Mars, “Dusters”/“Martians,” Martian Congressional Republic (MCR)
• Asteroid Belt, “Belters,” Outer Planets Alliance (OPA)

To set the scene, there had recently been a battle between UN and MCR forces on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which was the primary food source for the outer planets. The battle destroyed the moon’s agricultural domes, significantly disrupting food supplies. This meant that there were no longer enough resources to feed the people of Ganymede Station, causing panic and evacuations of the station. In episode 8 of season 2, a Belter crewman is organising refugees into specific areas under the pretence that they will be placed on ships to be transported to the safety of the inner planets (i.e., Mars/Earth). Praxideke “Prax” Meng (another Belter) is trying to stay with his botanist friend, Doris Bourne (who is from Mars), but is told by the crewman that it is for “inners only” (which means people from the inner planets) and is held back, despite his protests that he is going with her to Mars. Upon realising that it is hopeless to resist, Prax tells Doris “I’ll join you as soon as I can.” But, when the airlock door is opened there is no transport on the other side, and all the refugees are “spaced” (i.e. killed by being sucked out into space). The Belter crewman then says “Inners wreck Ganymede, Belter life first from now on.”

Social identity theory posits that a person’s sense of self is obtained through groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), and that for every group that a person feels they belong to, separate social identities are created. In episode 8 of season 2 of The Expanse, Doris and Prax would feel like they have a shared group identity of being botanists, which helped form a bond between them and lead to them wanting to stay together when they became refugees (due to Ganymede Station breaking down). Despite them both having worked together on Ganymede Station (in the outer planets) for quite some time, Doris was originally born on Mars, creating a separate social identity as an Inner/Duster/Martian. Drax was born in the asteroid belt, giving him a social identity (that is separate from Doris, but the same as most others on Ganymede Station) as a Belter. The Belters on Ganymede Station already had pre-existing prejudices towards those from the inner solar system, and with the conflict between UN and MCR forces being the cause of the breakdown of Ganymede Station, this resulted in them blaming “Inners” for the precarious situation they were now in. This lead many Belters to unjustifiably punish those on the station who share that same broader social identity (i.e., Inners) for the station’s breakdown, despite those individuals not having been involved in the conflict. This resulted in the Belters feeling justified to punish them by “spacing” them instead of transporting them away to safety with the others.

2. Physical Attractiveness and the Halo Effect

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

IMAGE (LEFT): Aragorn. IMAGE (RIGHT): Denethor. © New Line Cinema / WingNut Films.

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) is the final film in the trilogy based on the best-selling fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The film has many scenes which depict an old and disheveled man, named Denethor, who is the Steward of Gondor, which is the highest authority of the lands of Gondor, but without being granted the status of kingship. The film also features a relatively young and attractive man, named Aragorn, who is supposedly the heir to the throne of Gondor.

Physical attractiveness is one of the first judgments that one may make about another person, and is capable of heavily biasing our perceptions of them. Because more attractive people are generally perceived more positively—and the Halo Effect means that we are likely to assume that attractive people possess other positive traits as well—attractive people are typically used in media to depict the heroes of a story, and unattractive people are typically used to depict the villains of a story. In The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), the heir of the throne of Gondor, Aragorn, is played by a physically attractive man. Whereas, the Steward of Gondor, Denethor, is played by an old and unattractive man. This would have been done to give Aragorn the Halo Effect and help him be perceived as possessing the traits that make him worthy of supplanting the Steward of Gondor as king. In contrast, Denethor is depicted as an old and disheveled unattractive man, who is also depicted as behaving in erratic and hostile ways to further make him disliked by the audience. If the two characters had have been of more equal attractiveness, then the audience would have been more likely to question why it is that Aragorn is deserving of taking over the leadership of Gondor.

3. Attitude Structure and Function

Star Wars: Episode III — “Revenge of the Sith” (2005)

The video below is a short clip from the film. The full film is available on Disney Plus.

Revenge of the Sith (2005) is the final film in the Star Wars prequel film trilogy. The trilogy depicts the story of how Anakin Skywalker grows up to become one of the legendary “dark side” villains of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, Darth Vader. For the purpose of this analysis, there are two other main characters, Padme Amidala and Obi Wan Kenobi. In Revenge of the Sith, Obi Wan Kenobi is Anakin Skywalker’s Jedi master, tasked with training him in how to become a Jedi. And Padme Amidala is Anakin Skywalker’s lover, and is pregnant with his child.

Simply put, attitudes in psychology refer to an evaluation of how favourably or unfavourably one views a certain object or concept (i.e., attitude object). Off-camera, before the scene linked above, Obi Wan Kenobi has told Padme Amidala about the negative things that Anakin Skywalker has done (e.g., slaughtered children). Because she is Anakin’s lover and therefore previously held a strongly positive attitude towards him, this provides her with attitude-inconsistent information in order to change her positive attitude towards Anakin to a negative one. This is referenced by Padme Amidala saying “Obi Wan told me terrible things.” Anakin’s response is “Obi Wan is trying to turn you against me,” because he realises that she is in a state of cognitive dissonance where her attitude towards him has become more negative. Having this new information is relevant to the Tripartite Model of Attitudes in the way that it would have changed her cognitions (i.e., thoughts, beliefs), affect (i.e., feelings, emotions), and behavioural tendencies towards the attitude object, which in this case is Anakin Skywalker. Her newly-acquired cognitions are depicted by Padme Amidala saying “that you turned to the dark side, that you killed younglings.” Her newly-acquired affective state is depicted by her crying and saying “I was so worried about you.” And her behaviour towards Anakin Skywalker changes when she realises that what Obi Wan had told her was true, and this is depicted by her withdrawing from Anakin Skywalker’s embrace.

Soon after, Anakin Skywalker says to Obi Wan, “you turned her against me,” and Obi replies with “you have done that yourself.” This isn’t technically true, as it was through the information that Obi Wan passed on to Padme that changed her attitude towards him (but the information was true, so it likely would have changed her attitude towards him if she found out for herself via alternative means). A battle between the two then ensues, where Anakin Skywalker eventually shouts out “I hate you” to Obi Wan, which is an example of an attitude change towards Obi Wan that is ego-defensive, because rather than accepting that it was his own actions which turned Padme against him, he is placing the blame onto Obi Wan to protect his own self-esteem.

4. Attitude Change Resistance Strategies

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Season 1, Episode 3 — “Global Warming Controversy“)

The video below is a short clip from the episode.

In social psychology, there are a number of different strategies that people use to resist attitude change attempts. Some of these are depicted in the video above and detailed below.

At 00:58 in the linked clip above, John Oliver presents media where MSNBC host Alex Witt brought up a poll which demonstrated that one in four Americans are sceptical about the effects of climate change and think the issue has been exaggerated. This is an example of a social validation strategy for climate change denialists, since it is presenting social consensus information that is consistent with a lack of acceptance of climate science. John Oliver’s response is “you don’t need people’s opinions on a fact,” which is an example of assertions of confidence strategy for those who accept climate change science. At 01:30 in the linked clip above, John Oliver lists some examples of the “mountain of research on this topic” which is an example of a counterarguing strategy. At 02:00 in the linked clip above, John Oliver then mentions that “a survey of thousands of scientific papers that took a position on climate change found that 97% endorsed the position that humans are causing global warming,” which is an example of a social validation strategy for those who accept climate change science, since it is presenting social consensus information that is consistent with an acceptance of climate science. At 02:43 in the linked clip above, John Oliver then says “more often than not, it’s Bill Nye the Science Guy versus some dude,” which is an example of a source derogation strategy for those who accept climate change science, through creating a contrast between someone with perceived scientific expertise and someone who does not.

5. Social Influence — Compliance / Social Commitment Tactics / Foot-in-the-Door Technique

The Big Bang Theory (Season 1, Episode 11 — “The Pancake Batter Anomaly“)

The video below is a short clip from the episode, but the full episode is available on Netflix.

The Big Bang Theory is a popular American television sitcom created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady. Two of the main characters are Sheldon and Penny. Sheldon is one of four primary male protagonists in the series. He is a highly intelligent theoretical physicist studying at the California Institute of Technology, yet is depicted as being highly neurotic, stubborn, and difficult by actor Jim Parsons. Penny is the primary female character in the series and is portrayed as a ditzy blonde by the actress Kaley Cuoco. Episode 11 of season 1 of the show, depicts some examples of social influence strategies studied by social psychologists.

Prior to the scene depicted in the linked video above, Sheldon has come down sick and is making appeals for help. Penny agrees to these appeals by saying “okay sweetie, I’ll take care of you, what do you need?” Sheldon’s requests start out small — depicted by her simply tucking him into bed — but increasingly get bigger. This is depicted by her rubbing vapour rub onto Sheldon’s chest and then being taught to sing “Soft Kitty” to him, which she clearly doesn’t want to do but is complying with anyway. This is a good example of the foot-in-the-door technique, where someone makes a small request, which after it is agreed to, is then followed up by a related larger request. By doing this, he is able to escalate his requests to ones that if they had’ve been made from the start, would have almost certainly been turned down.

6. Groups & Belonging — Group Type and the Need to Belong (Including the Social Surrogacy Hypothesis)

New Girl (Season 4, Episode 22 — “Clean Break“)

The image below is a photo taken during the shooting of the episode, but the full episode is available on Disney+.

IMAGE: A photo taken during the shooting of Clean Break episode of New Girl. © 20th Television / Fox.

New Girl is a popular American television sitcom created by Elizabeth Meriwether. It is about a group of people that live together in a Los Angeles apartment and have become friends. This specific episode is about one of the characters, Coach (played by Damon Wayans Jr.), moving out of the apartment to move in with his girlfriend in New York, and him saying goodbye to the housemates. The episode is titled Clean Break because it describes his intention to leave without getting sentimental and only taking what is essential in a duffle bag. But, as the episode progresses it is revealed that he acquired a large suitcase so that he could secretly take sentimental items. Upon being discovered he says that he is going to take an assortment of other sentimental items just to “fill up space” in the suitcase, and then slowly breaks down to crying as they start reminiscing about experiences they have shared and all of the things he is going to miss.

The group of characters in New Girl is an example of a common bond group, where the group is based on members forming emotional attachments to one another, and therefore identify with each other rather than the overall group. This is in contrast to common identity groups, where members identify with the overall group, and where emotional attachments to individual members can vary significantly. The “Clean Break episode is an example of how despite Coach not wanting to get sentimental, the reality is that he has established strong social bonds with members of the group, and established a sense of belonging with them. This results in him being reluctant to break the social bonds that have been formed, and wanting to take items which remind him of them.

The social surrogacy hypothesis posits that it is possible for people to establish symbolic social bonds through the media they engage in. So, it is quite likely that through watching New Girl, people develop parasocial relationships with the characters in the television show which may reduce feelings of loneliness when they watch it.

7. Prejudice & Prejudice Reduction—Discrimination / Social Identity Theory / Integrated Threat Theory

The Expanse (Season 4, Episode 7 — “A Shot in the Dark”)

The video below is a short recap of the episode. The full episode is available on Prime Video.

As described previously, The Expanse is a science fiction television show that is about a future where humanity has colonised the solar system, where there are three main social divisions:
• Earth, “Earthers”, United Nations (UN)
• Mars, “Dusters”/“Martians”, Martian Congressional Republic (MCR)
• Asteroid Belt, “Belters”, Outer Planets Alliance (OPA)

In season 4, a group of Earthers and Belters have travelled to a new extrasolar planet named Ilus and are preparing for colonisation. In episode 7, the colonisers have entered into an ancient alien structure to escape a tidal wave which covers the planet in water. Inside the alien structure, the Earthers and Belters form their own camps and a conflict over resources begins to emerge. The Earthers devise strategies to maintain control of those resources, which involves eradicating the Belters.

Discrimination is generally evident in The Expanse between these groups in the form of verbal and physical aggression, and even hate crimes. It is further evidenced in this specific episode through the avoidance demonstrated by them choosing to set up separate camps from one another. Social Identity Theory is evident in this episode through the individuals within the scenario gaining a sense of self through their identification with one group or the other, and through the ingroup favouritism, outgroup derogation, and resulting hostility towards the outgroup. Integrated Threat Theory is also evident in the episode through the realistic threat posed by the limited resources available. This would have elicited further prejudice and intergroup anxiety.

8. Antisocial Behaviour—Aggression / Deindividuation / Bystander Effect

Black Mirror (Season 2, Episode 2 — “White Bear”)

The video below is a short clip from the episode, but the full episode is available on Netflix.

Black Mirror is a British anthology television series created by Charlie Brooker. Its individual episodes range in genre, but are mostly based in near-future dystopian settings. At the start of episode 2 of season 2, a character named Victoria wakes up strapped to a chair and seems to be experiencing amnesia. She leaves her house and starts calling out for help, but people just stare at her and capture what she does with the cameras in their phones. Soon after, she starts to get chased by people wearing masks who seemingly want to hurt or kill her with the various weapons (e.g., shotgun) that they each carry. Towards the end of the episode, it is revealed that she was a bystander to her partner murdering their daughter, and that this entire scenario she is in is an elaborate daily prank as means of punishing her.

Antisocial behaviour is any behaviour that violates community standards, and is evident in the episode in a number of ways. Most prominently, through what seems to be the antisocial behaviour displayed by those who are trying to harm Victoria. Although, by the end of the episode this seemingly antisocial behaviour is revealed to be the punishment that the community has decided to inflict on Victoria for her antisocial behaviour of not intervening to protect her own daughter. (This begs the question, if antisocial behaviour is the overall community’s group norm, is the behaviour being displayed in this episode even antisocial behaviour anymore?)

Aggression is prevalent in the episode through the community’s intention to inflict physical and psychological harm to Victoria. The type of aggression displayed is proactive aggression, since it is (mostly) done without aggressive affect, and premeditated with the goal of punishing Victoria. The types of aggression displayed were direct forms (i.e., physical and verbal aggression) and the indirect form of relational aggression (i.e., the community was intentionally damaging her social reputation and status).

Deindividuation can be seen in the episode through the aggressors wearing masks, resulting in them losing a sense of their individual identity. It can also be seen through the deindividuation that is created through the crowds of people who do nothing but capture the events on their phones. In this case, the people lose their sense of individual identity through being just one of many in a crowd.

The bystander effect was evident all throughout the episode, demonstrated by the majority of people who refrained from granting help to Victoria when she was calling out for it.

9. Wrongdoing & Forgiveness—Interpersonal Transgressions / Apology / Forgiveness / Self-Forgiveness

Friends (Season 6, Episode 20 — “The One with Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E.”)

The image below summarises the relevant scene, but the full episode is available on Netflix.

IMAGE: A depicting from the episode.

Friends is an American television sitcom created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman. It centres around a group of six friends who live in Manhattan, New York City. The show stars Jennifer Aniston as Rachel, Courteney Cox as Monica, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe, Matt LeBlanc as Joey, Matthew Perry as Chandler, and David Schwimmer as Ross. In episode 20 of season 6, Chandler takes a call about Joey having gotten an audition for a television show, but gets distracted and forgets to let Joey know about it. Joey finds out and is upset, claiming that the part could have turned his career around. In response, Chandler admits that he messed up and apologises, but Joey still seems quite upset and they argue about a range of other mistakes they have both made in the past. In the next scene Chandler is sitting in the apartment confiding in Monica and Rachel about what happened. Chandler asks them “do you think he’ll ever forgive me?” Rachel responds “of course he will. But, Chandler, the most important thing is that you forgive yourself.” In reply, Chandler says “you know, I kind of have.” Then Rachel appears shocked and says “already? That was pretty bad what you did.”

The episode depicts an interpersonal transgression in the way that Chandler not passing the message on violated the expectation/norm of relaying important information onto Joey. This hurt and offended Joey, largely because of the consequences of it being a missed opportunity for his career. In this situation, Chandler was the offender and Joey was the victim. Joey responds with negative emotions, which leads to Chandler displaying guilt and delivering his apology. This placed Joey in a position of power, through being able to grant or deny forgiveness. But, because Joey is still upset he does not accept the apology, leading to Chandler perceiving damage to their relationship and asking others “do you think he’ll ever forgive me?” However, despite this, Chandler seems to think that he has already genuinely forgiven himself (i.e., self-forgiveness) for the wrong-doing, and is mostly concerned about repairing their relationship. The comedy of the scene is Rachel being surprised that he has already forgiven himself, suggesting that she doesn’t think he should have.

10. Love & Attraction—Three-Factor Theory of Love / Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love / Attraction

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The video below is a short clip from near the beginning of the film. The full film is available on Prime Video.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is a film written by Charlie Kaufman (one of my favourite writers) and directed by Michel Gondry (one of my favourite directors) about a man named Joel (portrayed by Jim Carrey) who wakes up one morning and uncharacteristically decides to ditch work that day, and instead catches the train to Montauk, but doesn’t know why. This is where he meets Clementine (portrayed by Kate Winslet). The scene linked above depicts their meeting. They discover that they are both travelling to the same place, and Clementine feels like she knows him, and tries to uncover where from (deciding that it must be from where she works — Barnes and Noble). She introduces herself and asks him not to make jokes about her name, but he states that he doesn’t know any jokes about her name. This appears as quite strange, since “Oh My Darling, Clementine” is a famous song, and seemingly should have been known by Joel. As the movie progresses, the reason why this is, and the reason why they feel like they know each other, is revealed. It is because they were previously lovers, but have both undergone a procedure to wipe their memories of one another in an attempt to erase the pain. But, in doing so, Joel realises that he made a mistake…and the start of the film was actually what happened the day after Joel’s procedure had taken place.

Hatfield and Walster’s (1981) Three-Factor Theory of Love is relevant in the way that the characters exist within a culture which has the concept of love, and they both perceive themselves as appropriate love objects, and you can tell that there is emotional arousal in their interactions. Without these components, Hatfield and Walster argue that it would not be possible for “love” to occur.

Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love is relevant in the way that intimacy and passion (combining to become romantic love) are present in their relationship, which leads to commitment (combining to become consummate love), at least until their relationship is dissolved, leading to Clementine erasing the memory of Joel.

IMAGE: Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love.

Attraction is relevant in a number of ways:

  • Propinquity — They both lived in close proximity to one another, living in the same neighbourhood and visiting the same stores.
  • Similarity / Assortative Mating — They were both from the same cultural background and of roughly the same age.
  • Reciprocity — It seems likely that Joel’s attraction to Clementine grew from him reciprocating the interest that is shown to him by Clementine.
    – Because Joel’s initial interaction with Clementine was isolated from other people, it would have given the impression that the interest was selective, which lead to more reciprocation.
    – But, as the film progresses, Joel assumes that Clementine has slept with someone else and says “that’s how you get other people to like you,” indicating that he has learned that the attention which was shown to him in the beginning, was indiscriminate attention, leading to less reciprocation, and contributing to a slow break-down of their relationship.
  • Physical attractiveness — Both characters are (at an equally matched level of being) physically attractive.

Each of these factors increase the likelihood that individuals will be attracted to one another.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these 10 different social psychology concepts, and that they have been well illustrated by these pop culture examples.



Jarren Nylund

🎓 PhD Student (Social / Environmental Psychology) | 📊 Research Assistant | 🌏 Climate Reality Leader | 🔗