Social Cognition

Social cognition is advancement within social psychology that grew out of the realization that people use the same mental architecture when perceiving and thinking about other people as they do when perceiving and thinking about objects. The field of social cognition investigates the ways people perceive, interact with, and influence each other, studying specific topics such as person perception, group prejudice and stereotyping, personal relationships, group processes, persuasion, and social influence. Person may share some important social attributes with each other, such as race, gender, or political affiliation. These are among many factors that distinguish people and objects that must be considered when attempting to apply our understanding of basic cognitive processes to social judgment. The present paper attempts to define social cognition from different viewpoint and provides argumentative, credible details of areas where social cognition can be functional. Paper also elaborates the future research basis of this sub-field of social psychology.

Social cognition is a development of social psychology- One of the most important developments in social psychology in the last 25 years has been social cognition, as both a conceptual and a methodological approach to social psychological topics. Also without doubt, one of the key figures in the emergence and development of that approach has been Bob Wyer (Alan J. Lambert, 2003; pg- 25).

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Social cognition is the conceptual orientation that has emerged from the information-processing perspective in cognitive psychology. This approach is based on the conviction that constructs relevant to cognitive representation and process are fundamental to understanding all human responses, regardless of whether those responses are social or non-social in nature (Thomas K. Srull, 1994). Social cognition borrows many ideas and themes from cognitive psychology, but is unique because of the interest in combining these themes to the study of people in social settings.  The focus of social cognition is precisely on the cognitive mechanisms that mediate judgments and behavior. The sequence of these operations is usually assumed to be divisible into several component-processing stages (Thomas K. Srull – author, Robert S. Wyer Jr., 1989; pg-2).

Basically, Social cognition is the study of how people process social information, especially its encoding, storage, retrieval, and application to social situations. When related schemas are activated, inferences beyond the information given in a particular social situation may influence thinking and social behavior, regardless of whether those inferences are accurate or not. Two processes that increase the accessibility of schemas are salience and priming. For example, if there is one female in a group of seven males, female gender schemas may be more accessible and influence the group’s thinking and behavior toward the female group member. Priming refers to any experiences immediately prior to a situation that caused a schema to be more accessible. For example watching a scary movie at a theatre late at night might increase the accessibility of frightening schemas that affect a person’s perception of shadows and background noises as potential threats.

Social cognition has its roots in social psychology: This attempts to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others (Allport, 1985, pg-3). It studies the individual within a social or cultural context and focuses on how people perceive and interpret information they generate themselves (intrapersonal) and from others (interpersonal) (Sternberg, 1994). Albert Bandura (1986) initially studied learning from a behavioral perspective (Bandura, 1965), while Jerome Bruner (1990) initially studied learning from a cognitive perspective (Bruner, 1957). Festinger’s (1957) cognitive-dissonance theory, Bem’s (1972) self-perception theory (see Greenwald, 1975), and Weiner’s (1985) attribution theory are additional examples of how the perspective of social cognition has been applied to the study of the learning process. A major implication of this perspective is that effective teaching must be grounded in an appropriate social environment (Hannafin, 1997).

In social cognition research, the schema concept originally derives from a Gestalt, configural approach to perception. For example, an approach that anticipated the schema concept, Asch (1946), described a configural model of how people form impressions of others, given a list of personality traits. He posited that the traits become organized around a central trait that determines the perceived root of the personality. The whole system of relations among the traits determines their meaning as a whole, especially with regard to a central or dominant trait. A person described as “warm, practical, and industrious” seems quite different from someone described as “cold, practical, and industrious.” One retrospective interpretation of such differences is that the two configurations evoke different schemata (Richard R. Lau, 1986; pg-14)

Opponents of Social cognition comment that it is a particular approach in social psychology that puts heavy emphasis on how we represent social knowledge and mentally process social information. For example, to explain why people conform to a majority, or obey an authority figure, do you really need to bring in social cognitions? Situational factors and forces can often have an overwhelming influence on behavior, and hence substantially reduce the importance of social cognitions (Donald C. Pennington, 200; pg-7).

The typical social cognition direct study can not provide evidence for accuracy, because the stimuli used are necessarily ambiguous. Recently, however, interest in the direct study of accuracy has remerged (Kruglanski, 1989). In contrast, studies of performance appraisal in organizational psychology typically have been concerned first and foremost with accuracy. This is obviously because performance ratings are used for decision making, with real impact on the welfare of individuals and organizations (Thomas K. Srull, 1994; pg-343). Social psychologists who research into social cognition commonly investigate such questions as: What caused a person to behave in a particular way? Why does somebody laugh in one social situation and behave in an unfriendly way in another situation? How do we mentally represent what we know about another person or group of people? How does belonging to a social group affect how we behave to others who are members of the same group, and others who are not group members? Why do individuals and groups of people engage in discrimination and conflict with other groups of people? How can prejudice and conflict between people be reduced? (Donald C. Pennington, 200; pg-2).

Individual Variation in social cognition- Most of the social cognition literature has dealt with consensual schemata, that is, knowledge structures that people are expected to share. As a consequence, relatively little attention has been devoted to the individual differences that may characterize the content, structure, and use of particular schemata (major exceptions to this include, Fiske ; Kinder, 1981; Fiske, Kinder, ; Larter, 1983; Lau, Coulam, ; Sears, 1983; H. Markus, 1977). However, such individual differences are likely to have a substantial impact on how people judge political candidates. Therefore, we consider three distinct, though related, sources of such variation: schema accessibility, availability, and development. As noted previously, schema accessibility is determined by a variety of factors (i.e. expectations, motivations, and salience) that may differ individually as well as contextually (Higgins ; King, 1981). For example, in anticipation of an ideological clash at a candidate debate, some voters’ ideological schemata might become more accessible; others may view the confrontation as a partisan one, and consequently, their party schemata might become more accessible. Similarly, variations in the motivations might generally influence the accessibility of schemata. For example, those voters who are highly involved in the campaign and who care about the outcome of the election should have more readily accessible political schemata and thus should be more capable of making candidate inferences (Richard R. Lau, 1986; pg-136). The role of Social cognition is influential in various fields of psychology throughout the lifespan.

Social cognition and child development- It is of interest to discover how children develop as attributors and to plot the patterns that they show. Children develop an awareness of causality quite early in their life; for example, Frye (1991) demonstrated that 4 to 8 month-olds were able to discriminate between spatial events (such as objects hitting one another) which were causally related and those which were not. By the age of 3 to 4 years children are conscious of the consequences and causes of their own actions and show motivation in controlling outcomes (Schneider and Unzer, 1992). Understanding of physical causality develops early in life, but applying causality in the social world is more complex. Evidence for the use of the discounting principle in childhood seems to be mixed, and there seems to be a tendency for younger children to use the principle for themselves, but not when explaining the behavior of others (Kassin and Pryor, 1985). Miller and Aloise (1989) found that younger children, 4 to 5 year-olds, used the discounting principle when an external cause was made highly salient. Fundamental attribution error is the pervasive tendency in adults of attributing causes to internal, stable, dispositions rather than external, situational factors. In children this seems to be acquired rather than being automatic, with evidence that the tendency in children is more towards external attributions as the norm (Fiske and Taylor, 1991. Over the period of 5-13 years it seems that children slowly learn to change their attention from whether the task is easy or difficult in relation to consequent success or failure, to internal attributions. Young children do not distinguish between effort and ability, assuming that success at a difficult task reflects being intelligent. By mid-childhood a relationship is seen between effort, ability and successful outcome (Nesdale and Pope, 1985). As children become teenagers the links between effort and ability and success or failure at school are firmly established (Donald C. Pennington, 200; pg-129).

Social cognition and health psychology- Health psychology concerns real-world phenomena, and hence provides a meaningful context in which to study the cognitions and behaviors of individuals. Indeed, such contexts often have life or death consequences for the individual, such as the experience of coronary disease, cancer, or AIDS (Linville et al., 1993). Health psychology focuses on topics include emotions, motivation, goals, and social relationships. An example is the context of AIDS, where individuals’ reactions to risk factor information may affect subsequent health-relevant behaviors involving others. The primary concern of research of health psychologists, endeavors is often the prediction and understanding of actual behavior. Therefore, it affords the social cognition researcher an excellent context in which to develop and test theories that lead to the under- standing of the cognition-behavior link. Finally, health psychology generally subscribes to a systems approach in the form of the bio-psychosocial model of health and illness (Schwartz, 1982; Taylor, 1991). This model values the interchange among social, psychological, and biological levels of human functioning as they contribute to health and illness. For example, studies of lifestyle change or adherence to complex medical regimens may involve an understanding of the impact of physiological risk factors, psychological reactions, and social values or practices as they impact on an individual’s behavior (Thomas K. Srull, 1994). Critics of social cognition research have argued that much work in this area is artificial, entailing a focus that has, in the past, excluded relevant social variables such as affect and interpersonal relationships. In addition, critics have complained that social cognition often fails to demonstrate effects on “real” socially relevant behaviors (Martin & Clark, 1990).

Materialism as Social Cognition- Representation on schema theory and the work of Kelly (1955), we propose that materialists not only perceive people in terms of possessions, but they use these criteria as super ordinate constructs when framing stimuli for social-cognition (James M. Hunt, 1996; Pg-65).

Recent work within social cognition- It suggests that unconscious mental processes play a dominant role in the judgments and actions of individuals. This stands in stark contrast with psychological theories that describe human action as typically caused by conscious intentions, and also conflicts with widely held beliefs concerning moral accountability. One of the most radical claims regarding social cognition is that we are unaware of the social attitudes that give rise to our judgments and behaviors (Banaji, 2001; Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Burgh and Chartrand (1999) proposed that most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance. Indeed, many social psychologists have come to the conclusion that conscious processes play only a minimal role in human thought and behavior.

Humans are exceedingly social animals, but the neural underpinnings of social cognition and behavior are not well understood. Studies in humans and other primates have pointed to several structures that play a key role in guiding social behaviors: the amygdala, ventromedial frontal cortices, and right somatosensory-related cortex, among others. These structures appear to mediate between perceptual representations of socially relevant stimuli, such as the sight of conspecifics, and retrieval of knowledge (or elicitation of behaviors) that such stimuli can trigger. Some aspects of psychological processes that promote social behavior (such as face recognition) may be innate. Studies have shown that newborn babies, younger than one hour old can selectively recognize and respond to faces, while people with some developmental disorders such as autism or Williams syndrome may show differences in social interaction and social communication when compared to their unaffected peers.

Social Cognition in Schizophrenia may be seen: There is considerable overlap between schizophrenia symptom dimensions, particularly between negative symptoms such as affective flattening and alogia and social cognition. The MSP is performing ongoing research on the phenomenology of deficits in social cognition, including impairment in affect recognition, theory of mind, and insight (Kennedy, A., Barres, P., Wood, A.E., Kilzieh, N., Tapp, A.2004).

Major research interests in Social Cognition: Through the development of new techniques for more directly investigating cognitive processes, research began to focus on a variety of new questions. For example, researchers could explicitly study the acquisition of social information and the biases in its en- coding and interpretation. These developments had an immediate impact on the nature of theory and research on both impression formation (Hastieetal, 1980) and stereotyping (Hamilton, 1981). There has been much recent interest in the links between social cognition and brain function, particularly as neuropsychological studies have shown that brain injury (particularly to the frontal lobes) can adversely affect social judgments and interaction. The case of Phineas Gage was an early and influential example of this finding.

Many researchers have assumed that a person’s individual representation of the self influences his or her behavior and judgments in various domains. One dimension of self-aspects is inherent to most of the proposed theories. It is the extent to which the self is defined either by reference to its unique and independent features (e.g. abstract traits) or by reference to socially shared aspects that stress the interdependence with others (e.g. group memberships).

Another research field of interest is the cognitive functioning of stereotypes. Researchers engaged in investigating how gender stereotypes influence the attribution of leadership competence. Many previous studies have shown that leadership competence is more closely associated with the masculine than with the feminine stereotype.

Social cognition is not a content area, but rather is an approach to understanding social psychology. It is a level of analysis that aims to understand social psychological phenomena by investigating the cognitive processes that underlie them.  As reviewed above, the major concerns of the approach are the processes involved in the perception, judgment, and memory of social stimuli; the effects of social and affective factors on information processing; and the behavioral and interpersonal consequences of cognitive processes. The past decade of research in social cognition has witnessed many advances in the understanding of the cognitive representation of social information. At the same time, it has begun to reveal potentially serious limitations to the generalize ability of the empirical findings that have emerged and the theoretical formulations developed to account for them. These limitations may be due, in large part, to the paradigms that have been employed.