The 4 levels of analysis and intervention based on social psychology and how these relate to the pathway to sustainability

As mentioned before, to understand how social change works (or doesn’t work), we need to take into account insights from different disciplines. To design a coherent pathway to sustainability, in addition to the technical expertise regarding the topic you are addressing, you need to be aware about the 4 levels of analysis and intervention based on social psychology.

4 levels of analysis and interventions

Social psychological phenomena can be studied both at the level of intrapsychic processes and at different levels of social interaction.

Here you can see all levels of analysis and intervention at a glance.

I and myself… Intrapsychic processes

Basic cognitive processes of impression formation or social perception decide on the “love at first sight” or the first impression in relation to another person.  The person’s behaviour is closely observed and causes for supposed signs of affection, distancing or even rejection are analysed.

Attitudes towards the other person then emerge, which, however, are not always based on actual observations, but all too often on our “ideal ideas” or even stereotypes about how the ideal partner or even a typical farmer, city dweller, man, woman, a Turkish man, a German woman, etc. is generally wired. This can lead to disappointment, tension or even injustice when it actually comes to interaction with the other person.

The intrapsychic level is the starting point for sustainable development projects and initiatives because change processes can only ever be initiated and implemented by individuals. Even a new law, the foundation of an organisation, or a new social movement are originated from the initiative of one or more individuals.

Any sustainable development requires individual behavior changes. However, this depends not only on the knowledge and skills of the individual person, but also on their attitude, interests and self-efficacy.

Vincent Petit (2019) describes the various behaviour change drivers in great detail. We will come back to this later.

However, a purely intrapsychic description leaves many questions unanswered. In an interaction between two or more people, there is much more to discover from a social psychological perspective.

As a rule, every interaction can be analysed on three levels: the interindividual, the intragroup and the intergroup.

I and you… Interindividual interactions

When two people meet, we can look at the inter-individual level of analysis to see how their relationship can be described and explained by their very individual characteristics in the situation.

Similarly, we are interested in the conditions under which people help and cooperate with each other (prosocial behaviour) and those under which they intentionally harm each other or nature (aggressive behaviour).

In fact, people often appear to be born altruists because we usually find it unpleasant when we see others suffering. This can be empathic feelings and a tendency to help unselfishly. But if a person remains completely unaffected in this regard, making fun of the other or even displaying aggressive behaviour, this would surprise the observer and perhaps lead to a need in him or her to punish this person for his or her behaviour that is contrary to the norm. These reactions can only be understood by including another level of analysis, the collective level.

We… intragroup interactions

This intragroup level takes into account that human thought and behaviour always takes place in a communal context, which is usually determined by the individual’s membership of social groups.  The very broad concept of group in social psychology describes not only small groups, such as a working group or a couple, but at least as often large, anonymous social units, or categories, such as the groups of Germans, climate change deniers, politicians, psychologists, farmers or even the whole of humanity.

In all these groups, explicit or unwritten rules and agreements (social norms) apply, which determine the thinking and behaviour of group members, and which lead to us caring for the sick and intervening when others are in need, but also occasionally behaving as strangely as we think we must or may do as passionate football fans (social category), as climate activists or as romantics in love.

How such processes of social influence play out and how obedience or conformity of individuals, but also the change of norms in groups (e.g. through political movements, such as those against racism in football or climate change denial) can be explained is one of the core topics of social psychological research.

We and “the others”… intergroup interactions

Interaction between two people, however, does not only refer to the negotiation of proximity or distance in their relationship. The interaction can also be understood as a meeting of members or representatives of two different social groups that are sometimes in conflict with each other.

Discrimination against certain social groups and the debate about the nature and extent of “integration” could also become an issue.

Although on the one hand the relationship between two people can be described on a purely inter-individual level, in many situations we can only fully understand it if we also include the level of intergroup interaction.

Thus, relationships between people from different cultural groups at the same time hold the potential of intercultural (mis)understanding and sometimes one and the same behaviour can be interpreted on both an interpersonal and an intergroup level.

Indeed, frequent contact between members of antagonistic groups has been shown to be an important determinant of the reduction of prejudice and intergroup conflict (Pettigrew and Tropp 2006). Source: Kessler & Fritsche (2018)

Aspects to take into account

The following graph shows different aspects that need to be taken into account at each level of analysis and intervention.

Please, reflect what this might mean for the change processes you are going to promote?

How these 4 levels are integrated in our pathways of sustainability?

Remember the levels of change we already knew before starting with the diagnosis phase:

  • Well-being of people and planet
  • Collective practices and performance
  • Individual behaviors and inter-individual interactions
  • Competences
  • Interventions (learning and change process, activities, methos and tools)

With the insights from social psychology we are getting more clarity about the interconnectivity of the different levels of change and we are going to precise the pathway to sustainability.

Intrapsychic processes are key to understand human’s behavior change drivers, how to build and strengthen people’s competencies and what happens when a person is going through a change process when we are going to implement the activities such as trainings, individual accompaniment, etc.  A key challenge for each person consists in how to overcome the “intention-behavior gap”, thus, we need to explore what helps and hinders people to do the step from having competencies (output) to using them (behavior… outcome).

The outcome level in our projects is often related to changes of individual behaviors, practices, habits and routines; but also behaviours regarding how an individual relate to other people and his/her environment. So, here we also integrate the interindividual interactions and sometimes even small group interactions.

The collective dimension may include families, small and big groups, organizations, companies, institutions, communities, networks, social movements, etc. For that, we need to analyze and design interventions regarding the intragroup interactions as well as the interactions between different groups (i.g. environmental movement and mining companies).


Aronson, Elliot; Wilson, Timothy; Akert, Robin. 2014. Sozialpsychologie. Pearson Deutschland GmbH, Hallbergmoos, Germany.

Kessler, Thomas; Fritsche, Immo. 2018. Sozialpsychologie. Springer Fachmedien. Wiesbaden, Germany.

Nolting, Hans-Peter. 2004. Psychologie politischer Gewalt: drei Ebenen. In: Sommer et al (Hrsg.); Krieg und Frieden: Handbuch der Konflikt- und Friedenspsychologie. Beltz Verlag. Germany

Richardson, Daniel C. 2014. Social Psychology for Dummies. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom.