  Chapter 

Studying the Social Thinker

Social cognition explains the processes of how people care about what other people think of them and of how we all want to understand the thoughts and actions of other people. In other words, social cognition is the study of how people make sense of other people and themselves. This can be studied in a number of ways, one of which is phenomenology – a systematic description of how people say they experience the world. Two main viewpoints in social cognition are naive psychology and cognition. Naive psychology refers to the commonsense beliefs people hold about the thoughts and behavior of themselves and others. The Cognition viewpoint involves a detailed and systematic analysis of how people think about themselves and others, relying heavily on the tools of cognitive psychology.

Approaches to studying the social thinker

The Competing Models of Asch

Solomon Asch (1946) noticed that people describe others using a set number of descriptors (traits) which together form a unifying concept of that person (an impression). His research team came up with a study which demonstrated that descriptive words could cause participants to form particular impressions of people they had not seen before. This led him to come up with two models accounting for these results.

1. The Configural Model

This model hypothesizes that people will form a unified view of other people which denies variation. This means that if a particular behavior does not fit into one’s overall impression of a person, one may interpret the behavior so that it aligns. Context changes the meaning of different traits (i.e. a whiny child is tired, a whiny adult is immature). The brain attempts to organize and unify perceptions of people. All mental activity results in an impression made up of relationships, which make up a schema.

2. The Algebraic Model

The algebraic model does not begin with a unified whole, but starts with the observation of a number of isolated evaluations which are collected into a summary evaluation. It is algebraic because traits are added up together to form a total picture.

Next a historical context will be presented, as the two models mentioned above form the core of much research that will be discussed in this book.

Elemental Origins of Social Cognition Research

The elemental approach to social cognition research aligns with the algebraic model in that it breaks scientific problems down into pieces that are analyzed separately before being recombined. Information comes through our senses and perceptions, forming ideas. These ideas become associated through contiguity in space and time. Thus, if two ideas occur together (i.e. dancing and shame), they become a unit. The more often they are paired, the easier and stronger the association becomes. Early psychologists studying memory (Wundt, Ebbinghaus) formed the basis of the elemental view of social cognition.

Holistic Origins of Social Cognition Research

German philosopher Kant observed that we tend to view things in a holistic way, linking the parts of a thing into a whole (a bunch of grapes rather than 20 individual grapes). Similarly, movement is not the sequence of isolated moments, but a cause-effect connection. The mind organizes the world according to an order of grouping. German-American Gestalt psychology recognized this insight and applied it to the phenomenon of interest. It used phenomenology, systematically asking people about their insights into the world. Gestalt dealt with the perception of dynamic wholes while the Elemental researchers focused on the ability to break the whole into measurable parts. In terms of a song: the melody (holistic) vs. the notes (elemental).

The Person-Situation Field Theory

Kurt Lewin brought Gestalt to social psychology. He focused on a subjective rather than objective analysis of people’s realities, calling the influence of the perceived social environment the psychological field. Most important is not what actually happens, but how one interprets what happens. Lewin also put importance on describing total situations, seeing the person as an element within a collision of forces. The total psychological field (and therefore behavior) is determined by two factors: (1) the person in the situation (all that makes up their personality), and (3) cognition and motivation. Cognitions determine what you might do, but motivation determines whether you will do it. Within a psychological field, an individual encounters forces which influences both cognition and motivation.

The Ebb and Flow of Cognition in Psychology

In this paragraph the place of cognition in both experimental and social psychology is discussed.

Cognition in Experimental Psychology

Wundt, one of the earliest psychologists, conducted research heavily reliant on introspection; a psychologists’ own description of psychological phenomena based on their own experiences and observations. Wundt’s goal was to reveal the internal experiences of an individual. Introspection was quickly dismissed, because it was regarded as being unscientific as it did not produce measurable and comparable data, and was too subjective to be reproduced. Psychologists went to avoiding cognition (deemed immeasurable) and focused their efforts on physical manifestations of mental processes (reflexes, memory, training) instead. Behaviorist psychology appealed to the scientific due to its philosophy of cause and effect, which left cognition entirely out of the equation. A stimulus (S) and response (R) could be outlined and measured. For about 50 years, behaviorist theory dominated the field of psychology.

In the 1960s, people became critical of behaviorism. It could not account for the development of language, for instance. The information processing approach was developed. This is the idea that mental operations can be split into stages (occurring between stimulus and response). Information-processing research arose out of work on learning. The sequential processing of information is an important feature of information processing theories. These approaches try to specify cognitive mechanisms to get a grip on the mind’s black box.

New scientific tools allowed for psychologists to trace previously non-observable processes. The computer acted as both a tool and as a metaphor for cognitive processing. It provided a framework for a new way to think about psychology.

The advent of cognitive neuroscience in the 1990s caused the metaphors and models to change. Nowadays cognitive psychologists are more focused on plausible modeling processes with regard to the increased understanding of neural networks, brain systems and single-cell responses. It is exactly this approach that could save psychology from being torn apart, since it doesn’t divide the brain into different clusters. Cognitive neuroscience instead acknowledges that we are all social, affective and cognitive actors in the world we live in.

Cognition in Social Psychology

Social psychology has always dealt with cognitive concepts. Social behavior has always been cognitive in at least three ways. First it has been considered as a function of people’s perceptions rather than of objective descriptions of a stimulus environment. Next, social psychologists consider both causes and the end result of social perception and interaction in cognitive terms. Third, the individual in between the presumed cause and the result is regarded as a thinking organism, instead of a emotional organism. Cognitive structures like motivation, memory, and attribution were clearly vital in understanding social interaction. In social psychology there are five general models of the social thinker that can be identified:

1. The consistency seeker

The consistency theories, emerged in the late 1950s, regarded people as consistency seekers. According to these theorists, people are driven to reduce the discomfort they experience from the perceived discrepancies among their cognitions. The best known example is the dissonance theory: If someone who has publicly announced that he will stop smoking and he has just smoked a cigarette, he must evoke some thoughts to bring those two cognitions into line.

The consistency theories thus relied on perceived inconsistency and a central role is assigned to cognitive activity. Subjective, not objective, inconsistency is central to these theories. When perceiving inconsistency, the individual is presumed to feel uncomfortable and thus motivated to reduce this inconsistency. This is also called the drive reduction model.

2. The naive scientist

This model emerged in the 1970s and was focused on the way people uncover the causes of behavior. Attribution theories – which concern the way individuals explain both their own behavior and the behavior of others around them (external vs. internal attribution) – came to the forefront. The first hypothesis of these theories was that individuals are analytical data collectors and will therefore arrive at the most argumentative conclusion. So the role of cognition in this model is an outcome of reasonable rational analysis. In contrast to the consistency theories, in which motivation was emphasized, attribution theorists don’t regard unresolved attributions causing motivation in an attempt to resolve these. According to the attribution theories motivation only helps to catalyze the attribution process.

3. The cognitive miser

Off course people aren’t always as rational as the naive scientist believes them to be. The cognitive miser model (1980s) regards people as limited in their competence to process information. According to this model, individuals take shortcuts (strategies that simplify complex information or problems) whenever they can. At first hardly any role was given to motivation. But as the cognitive miser model developed, theorists began to pay attention to the influences of motivation on cognition. Social interaction became more important.

4. The motivated tactician

This view emerged during the 1990s. It saw people as fully engaged thinkers that use multiple cognitive strategies, depending on what their goals, motives and needs are. In some situations people will be motivated to choose wisely for the purpose of accuracy and adaptability, and in other situations people will be motivated to choose defensively for the purpose of self-esteem or speed.

5. The activated actor

Nowadays individuals are considered as being activated actors. Without being aware of it, people’s social concepts are quickly cued by their social environments. As a result they also almost inevitably cue the cognitions, affect, evaluations, motivation and behavior that are associated with these social concepts.

What is Social Cognition?

Most research on social cognition shares some basic features, which are discussed in this paragraph.


Mentalism is the first basic assumption in research on social cognition. This is the belief that cognitive representations are important. The cognitive elements that we use when we try to understand other people and social interaction are what make up the study of social cognition. General knowledge about ourselves and others allows us to predict what others will do and enables us to properly function in the world.

Cognitive Processes in Social Settings

Research on social cognition also concerns cognitive process. Cognitive processes are the ways in which cognitive elements form, operate, interact, and change over time. Behaviorists avoided the discussion of internal process with the belief that they were not scientifically approachable. Social cognition researchers are now able to measure and describe previously unexamined aspects of cognitive processes.


Another feature of social cognition research is the cross-fertilization between cognitive and social psychology. Research into social cognition adopts elements from cognitive and social psychological research, and extends to neuroscience and other areas of psychology.

Real-World Social Issues

Social cognition is focused on applying research to real-world social interactions. Contemporary issues as far-reaching as crowd behavior, propaganda, and organizational team building are all dealt with in social cognition research.

People are not ThingsThe behaviorists argued that the cognitions of a person were not observable, so we might as well just be robots or farm beasts. Yet we are people and are different than objects in a number of ways. We influence our environments, we perceive and are perceived. Social cognition implies the existence of a self, an independent identity that can be judged. Personality traits are not always observable, but are fundamental to how we are observed by others. We are unavoidably complex and have intents and traits that are hidden from view, whose influence on our behavior are ambiguous and unclear.

Brains matter

There are a number of neuroscientific techniques used in studying social cognition, including neuropsychology, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), EMG (electromyography), EEG (electroencephalography), TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), electrodermal responses, cardiovascular activity, hormone levels (such as cortisol), immune functioning and genetic analyses.

The Role of Culture

An important thing to note when looking at research that has been done in the field of social cognition is that researchers have focused in western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic undergraduates. This means that research tends not to be cross-culturally valid. One major distinction that can be made is the difference between cultures in which people have an independent self and are more autonomous, versus cultures where people are more interdependent and harmonious. This will be dealt with in the coming chapters.


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