The Intersection of Social Psychology and Evaluation

The first time I attended the American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference was in 2011. At the time, I was new to Cobblestone and the field of evaluation.  As a social psychology doctoral student, I wasn’t quite sure how I fit in. I enjoyed the work I was doing for Cobblestone and could see how the theories and research I learned in school applied to some of the components and aspects of programs we were evaluating; however, I was struggling to make the connection between social psychology and evaluation practice. As you can image, I was excited to find in the AEA conference program that Mel Mark (a big name in the field) was giving a talk on the intersection between social psychology and evaluation. I attended the lecture, and it exceeded my expectations. His talk really opened my eyes to how evaluators can draw from social psychology to enhance evaluation practice and provide a reciprocal benefit to the field. I left the conference feeling inspired and eager to get down to work.

Let me provide you with a brief review of what I know about social psychology, what I learned from Mel Mark’s talk on social psychology and evaluation, and an example of how I applied social psychological research and theory to help our clients better understand how, why, and for whom program activities can lead to intended (and sometimes unintended) outcomes.

For those of you who are thinking what the heck is social psychology, let me provide you with a basic definition. Social psychology is the scientific study of how individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the real, imagined, or implied presence of others (Allport, 1985). The discipline covers numerous topics of interest to evaluators: processes that influence behavior change, attitude change and persuasion, decision-making processes, the impact of social norms, and interpersonal and intergroup processes.

As I mentioned earlier, Mel Mark’s talk at AEA 2011 was awesome! He and his colleagues recently wrote an excellent book which I was lucky enough to get signed by them (the nerd in me is jumping for joy). I will summarize the main points here. According to Mark, Donaldson, & Campbell (2011), the relationship between social psychology and evaluation is bi-directional. First, social psychological research and theory can be drawn from to uncover or develop program theory. For example, the theory of planned behavior (Azjen, 1985) considers the impact of attitudes, social norms, and efficacy on behavioral intentions and actual behavior. This social psychological theory has been used to explain the change processes that underlie many social programs and policies. Second, social psychology can be used to help answer the questions and address the challenges that might arise in evaluation practice. For example, to help facilitate evaluation use, evaluators can draw from social psychological research on attitude change and persuasion. Also, to facilitate trust between evaluators and stakeholders, evaluators can draw on research from the interpersonal and intergroup domains such as research on power, cooperation, and accountability. Third, evaluation can benefit social psychology by helping to identify gaps in social psychological literature. Much social psychological research is conducted in an artificial laboratory setting. The field would benefit from testing theory in a real-world, evaluation context which will help identify holes in the literature and, in turn, help social psychology to develop better, more comprehensive theory.

So here is the fun part. Last year I had the opportunity to apply social psychology to one of Cobblestone’s STEM higher education evaluation projects. As the program was coming to an end, our clients had a number of questions about the tutoring component of the program.  Our previous analyses of tutoring data required an assessment of outputs, and although this data was informative, stakeholders were interested in understanding how, why, and for whom tutoring lead to its intended outcomes (i.e., helping students complete Sciences, Mathematics, and Access to Retail Talent (SMART) field curricula). I thought, “Perfect, this is where my expertise can come in.”

I used social psychological research and theory to test causal assumptions underlying the important but not well understood tutoring component of our client’s program theory. I first identified the two main implicit assumptions about the causal processes that underlie the link between tutoring and its intended outcomes including:


1) If tutoring services are provided, then students in need of assistance will take advantage of these services,


2) If students attend tutoring they will be able to complete “gatekeeper” courses in the SMART field curricula and advance towards their degree.


Then I used social psychological research on stigma (i.e., help-seeking stigma) to help inform why students sought (or did not seek) academic assistance (i.e., tutoring) and research on social support (i.e., mentoring, role models) and self-efficacy to help explain why tutoring lead (or did not lead) to increased retention, persistence, and graduation rates. I won’t go into all the details, but the findings were really interesting. By using social psychology to guide some of our analyses, we were able to provide our clients with a better understanding of how the tutoring component of their program worked, why it worked, and for whom it worked. Additionally, the results of this study provided useful information for modifying and improving marketing/advertising campaigns for campus tutoring services after the program ended.


In conclusion, I love social psychology and I equally love evaluation. I’m really glad that both disciplines can positively impact each other. I hope that this post inspires you to find ways in which your background and expertise can be used to influence and improve your practice.




Allport, G. W (1985). The historical background of social psychology. In Lindzey, G; Aronson, E. The Handbook of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Azjan, I. (1985). From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behavior. In J. Kuhl & J. Beckman (Eds.), Action-control: From cognition to behavior (pp. 11-39). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

Mark, M., Donaldson, S. I., & Campbell, B. (2011). Social Psychology and Evaluation. New York: The Guilford Press.



  1. […] I wrote a blog post about my personal experience as a social psychologist working in evaluation (“The Intersection of Social Psychology and Evaluation”). At the end of the post, I encouraged evaluators to find ways in which their background and […]

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