The best non-communications class I took and why

Public relations student at Mississippi State University

As a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed college freshman, I dreamed of graduation day. And in that dream, I was walking across the stage to receive my degree in biomedical sciences and psychology. However, one internship, two semesters, three weeks of shadowing and four hard-earned A’s later, I realized that I did not want to be a psychiatrist. I found that I didn’t necessarily enjoy my psychiatry internships, but instead I enjoyed the relationships I formed during my time in those hospitals and clinics. So, the first day of my sophomore year, I changed my major to public relations with a minor in Spanish, and I have never felt more at home.

I know what you’re thinking. Did I at least learn something valuable in those two semesters of biomedical sciences, or was it a complete waste of time? Actually, I did learn something. One of the most beneficial PR classes I have taken wasn’t a PR course at all – it was a course in social psychology. 

What I learned

The definition of social psychology is “the study of the manner in which personality, attitudes, motivations and the behavior of the individual influence and are influenced by social groups.” Basically, it’s the study of why people act in certain ways based on the people around them. This class opened my eyes to the thousands of ways we are subtly influenced every day. 

For example, have you ever been adding things to your online shopping cart during a sale just to find out that “one or more of your items” aren’t part of the sale? Me too. Have you clicked the checkout button anyway? Me too. Retailers often use this little trick to persuade you to buy an item at full price. By putting the item in your cart, your brain has already resolved to buying it.

Another way in which human behavior can be influenced is through the exposure effect. This theory states that the more you see an item and familiarize yourself with it, the more likely you are to desire or purchase the item. This is part of the reason companies will do anything to get a product in front of your eyes. Even if you don’t want it now, you may the next time or the next.

Lastly, I’ll share one of my favorite things I learned in the course: the Ben Franklin effect. This effect causes people to come to like an individual more after they have performed a favor for that person. This is because our brains have a tendency to attribute our helping someone to liking them. It’s true – a simple, “Could you hand me my phone,” to your crush could do wonders for you.

How it applies to public relations

So how does this apply to PR? Public relations is all about persuasion. Persuading your audience to agree with you, to purchase your product, to attend your event. Social psychology studies why individuals make certain decisions, why they enjoy the things they do and the many other “whys” that drive our actions. It delves deep into the human psyche to uncover the very things that make us tick. What could be more useful than that in a field that hinges on persuasion and relationships?

All of the theories I listed earlier are used to persuade people daily and can help you maintain relationships. Subtle things like eye contact, small favors or casual compliments could make a world of difference for both your client relationships and your relationships with the general public.They could also be useful in your everyday life because hey, who doesn’t want to be liked? 

I think social psychology should be a required course for PR majors. The lessons I learned in that class have helped me become a better student, intern, future employee and person. But don’t take my word for it – I am just a college student. Take a look into the subject for yourself, and you may just become better for it.