The Legacy of European Social Psychology

An online compendium of ideas, schools and people in the field of Social Psychology

Mannheim as a Center of European Social Psychology and a Breeding Ground for Social Cognition

Mannheim Palace, where part of the University of Mannheim is located (Source: Hubert Berberich, CC BY 3.0)

The University of Mannheim was a special place during the rise of social psychology in Germany after WW2. Building on an older College of Commerce (Handelshochschule), the university was founded with an emphasis on economics and social sciences in 1967 and social psychology was embedded in a structural context that differed from other German universities. First, social psychology was part of the department of social sciences, which included social psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy of science, and contemporary history. As a consequence, students who specialized in social psychology could pursue degrees in either psychology or the social sciences. Social psychology’s joint role in psychology and the social sciences followed the arrangements of Harvard’s program in social relations and Michigan’s program in social psychology, which were both joint ventures across disciplinary boundaries. In a Lewinian tradition, this context provided the soil for a highly fertile interaction between the fields, a soil on which one’s research was always expected to contribute to a deeper psychological understanding of social issues. Moreover, the link to the philosophy of science, represented by Hans Albert, provided access to its most prominent thinkers at that time (including Karl Popper) and had an important intellectual impact on both our field and its methodology.

The second structural condition was the SFB 24, which lasted from 1968-1983. The acronym stands for “Sonderforschungsbereich”, which is a temporary research institute funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG). Its denomination was (roughly translated) “social psychological and economic psychological decision research”. The SFB included projects from psychology, sociology, economics, business administration, and law. In this interdisciplinary context, students learned about different theoretical and methodological approaches to issues concerning judgment and decision making, with social psychology always playing a central role. At the same time, it provided several laboratories to pursue experimental research, which was not common during those days.

Importantly, junior researchers and graduate students were exposed to the international dimension of our field. Particularly, distinguished professors, mostly from the United States, were frequent visitors in Mannheim, while some of them spent entire semesters at the SFB, collaborated with its members over extended periods of time and invited graduate students to earn their PhDs or spend a postdoctoral year with them. For many of the younger generation, this laid the ground for an international orientation and publications in English-language journals. Of course, numerous members of the EASP (then EAESP) were also frequent short and long-term visitors at the SFB. Equally important, it provided positions for many junior researchers that gave them the opportunity to qualify for an academic career.

During those years, social psychology experienced a major paradigm shift from motivational theories of cognitive consistency to cognitive models of information processing. Both camps were well represented at the SFB 24 and among its visitors. During their extended visits, prominent representatives of consistency theories (e.g., Festinger, Brehm, Wicklund) and information processing approaches (especially Ostrom and Wyer) involved junior researchers in the emerging debates. This gave social cognition research, understood as social psychology in the paradigm of information processing, a headstart in Mannheim.

Whereas much of social cognition research in the U.S. focused on person perception and stereotyping, Mannheim’s proximity to sociology and political science invited the application of the information processing paradigm to issues of empirical social research beyond person perception, which resulted in productive interdisciplinary collaborations at the interface of social cognition, survey research, and economic behavior. These important developments were closely linked to one person, Martin Irle (1927-2013), who was a distinguished professor of social psychology at the university of Mannheim from 1964-1992. He founded the SFB and assured its funding for 15 years, which was the longest funding period allowed under DFG rules. Irle’s commitment to the field, to his students and colleagues has shaped German social psychology in the second half of the 20th century in a truly Lewinian spirit that emphasized basic research and its application. The institutional and intellectual context that Martin Irle fostered allowed German social psychology to develop into an internationally respected science.

Decades later, formal records are incomplete and so is our recollection of names. Academic social psychologists from Mannheim who received their PhD with Martin Irle or were active as researchers at the SFB include:
Michael Aschenbrenner, Jürgen Beckmann, Helmut Crott, Katrin Borcherding, Dieter Frey, Gisla Gniech, Jochen Grabitz, Marita Inglehart, Helmut Lamm, Waldemar Lilly, Volker Möntmann, Günter F. Müller, Randolph Ochsmann, Margit Oswald, Bernd Rohrmann, Edith Rost-Schaude, Norbert Schwarz, Fritz Strack, Gisela Trommsdorff, Arnold Upmeyer.

Visitors to the SFB 24 included:
Jack Brehm, Sharon Brehm, Leonard Berkowitz, Leon Festinger, Joseph Forgas, Fritz Heider, Charles Kiesler, Arie Kruglanski, Serge Moscovici, Jaap Rabbie, Charlan Nemeth, Thomas Ostrom, Gun Semin, Siegfried Streufert, Henri Tajfel, Amos Tversky, Elaine Walster, Robert Wicklund, Robert Wyer, Robert Zajonc, Philip Zimbardo.