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Social Cognition: Understanding self and others (Moskowitz)

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Social Cognition is the research domain to understand human relationships and the mental processes involved in each individual. It all begins with our ability to reason and to process information about the causes of events. We scan our environment and try to find answers to the question “why” something has changed in it (Heider 1944). Most striking are the changes that involve people (social interactions) as they could cause danger or pleasure. Person perception and Interpersonal relations are the relating study fields in which attribution investigation plays a great role. Attributions are prone to be altered and distorted by the perceiver of a subject, they are biased. We humans face three basic needs; 1) Affiliation (belonging) Need, 2) Self-Esteem and 3) Epistemic Need which lead us to the urge of finding answers to the ‘why’.

Affiliation Need refers to the need to belong to a group. Not only for the reason of safety but also for the emotional need of feeling loved and wanted. We further need to belong to a group to form our identities. “I am a girl”. We seek to maintain its norms and consequently we can draw conclusions from other people’s behaviour of whether we like/accept them or not.


Self-Esteem is linked to the first Need as we define our successes by the standards of a group. If we perform well, other members will reward us for it. On the other hand it is not a necessity to belong to a group to be able to compare ourselves to them and thus to feel good or bad about our performances.


Epistemic Need is the need to identify the reasons for behaviours or objects in our world, the ‘causal drive’ (Heider 1944). For humans it is essential to attain knowledge about (a change in) the environment. Is it a danger or pleasure? So we categorize to draw inferences from it to further make predictions from it. In that way we can make appropriate responses to it. (It has the shape of a shoe so I can wear it, it will protect my feet and accordingly I can put it on.

These scans occur not only in extraordinary situations but instead they occur unconsciously all the time. Just like a force of habit.


How we attain knowledge about other people is not as simple as one would imagine. We cannot get absolute truth and so we use a practical way to obtain information. We strive for as much information as we need to feel comfortable enough to act. This is called



When it comes to science we cannot rely on feelings but we need methodologies to measure. The first methodology, Introspection, was found by Wundt (1862). He tried to train people to become aware of their internal processes. This was critiqued by the Behaviourists’, which believed that only overt actions could be scientifically measured and thus called true. The Gestalt psychologists (Köhler 1930) questioned the belief that no mental activities could be measured and as a result we now have a study domain of social cognition.


Perception is a great field to be studied in Social Cognition. It is believed to be multiply determined. The observed behaviour has to be seen in the context of the situation and biases of the perceiver have to be taken into consideration. Lewin called this life space. A person has certain needs, which determine how and what is perceived in ones environment. Affordance is the term used to describe the relationship between the individuals’ desires, the situation and the behaviour that can be performed as a consequence of the other two.

There is also a distinction between Object and Person Perception. The first one is easier for us and mostly the same for all people. We categorize objects according to its shape and colour to find out the function. When it comes to Person Perception finding out the meaning is more difficult as the other person performs an action that needs to be interpreted.

Physical features as well as the non-verbal behaviours have to be analysed.

It is believed that we try to find out the stability of behaviour (trait inference) to make future predictions easier. Further we scan the behaviour for their internal state and for their motives

It is also important to know that this process is a dynamic process. We perceive the other person but we are also perceived.

Specific brain areas have been found that are responsible for Person Perception as opposed to Object Perception.


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