Social cognition is about the processes that occur when people are concerned about what others think of them and when people try to control the thoughts and behavior of others. In other words, social cognition is the study of how people try to understand themselves and others around them. This can be studied in various ways. One way to study social cognition is phenomenology. This is a systematic description of the way in which people indicate that they experience the world. In addition, social cognition has two core visions: naive psychology and cognition. Naive psychology refers to the general beliefs that people have regarding the thoughts and behavior of themselves and others. The cognition view involves a detailed and systematic analysis of the way people think about themselves and others and relies heavily on the tools of cognitive psychology.
Two approaches can be distinguished that are useful in studying the social thinker. Both approaches were devised by Solomon Asch (1946). Asch noted that people describe others by a collection of qualities (traits), which together form a coherent concept of that person (an impression). His research team devised a study that showed that descriptive words could cause participants to form certain impressions of people they had never seen before. As a result, he came up with two models that explain these results:
- The Configurational Model. This model assumes that people will form a coherent view of others in which there is no room for variation. This means that when a certain behavior does not fit within one's overall impression of a person, one interprets this behavior in such a way that it still supports the overall impression. Context influences the meaning of various traits (for example, a whining child is seen as tired, while a whining adult is seen as immature). The brain tries to organize and unite the perceptions of others. All mental activity results in an impression consisting of relationships, which form a schema.
- The Algebraic Model. This model does not start with a unified whole, but with the observation of several separate evaluations that are collected in a summary evaluation. It is algebraic in that traits are added together to form a total picture. A historical context follows in the next section, as the two models mentioned above are at the heart of much of the research covered in this book.
The elementary approach to social cognition research is aligned with the algebraic model; it breaks down scientific problems into small parts that are first analyzed separately from each other before they are recombined. Information enters through our senses and perceptions and shapes our ideas. These ideas are associated by proximity in space and time. So, when two ideas take place together (for example, dancing and shame), they become a whole. The more often they are paired, the easier and stronger the associations are formed. Early psychologists who studied memory (such as Wundt and Ebbinghaus) formed the basis of the elementary view of cognition.
The German philosopher Kant observed that people tend to see things in a holistic way and link the different parts of a thing into one whole (for example, a bowl of grapes instead of 20 single grapes). Likewise, motion is not a sequence of discrete moments, but a cause-effect relationship. The mind organizes the world by grouping. The German American Gestalt psychology recognized this insight and applied it to the phenomenon of interest. It used phenomenology by systematically asking people about their understanding of the world. Gestalt dealt with the perception of dynamic wholes, while the elementary researchers focused on the ability to break the whole into measurable parts. In terms of music: the melody (holistic) versus the single notes (elementary).
Kurt Lewin introduced Gestalt to social psychology. He focused more on a subjective, rather than objective, analysis of people's realities. He called the influence of the perceived social environment the psychological field. It is not so much what happens, but how one interprets it that matters the most. Lewin also emphasized describing entire situations; he saw someone as part of a clash of forces. The total psychological field (and therefore also the behaviour) is determined by two factors: (1) the person in the situation (everything that contributes to his/her personality) and (2) cognition and motivation. Cognitions determine what you may do, while motivation determines whether you do it. Within a psychological field, a person encounters forces that affect both their cognition and motivation.
This section discusses the place of cognition within both experimental and social psychology.
How does cognition relate to experimental psychology?
Wundt, one of the first psychologists, conducted research that relied heavily on introspection; a psychologist's own description of psychological phenomena, based on his own experiences and observations. Wundt's goal was to reveal a person's internal experiences. Introspection was quickly rejected, as it was considered unscientific, as it did not provide measurable and comparable data. In addition, it was too subjective to be reproduced. Subsequently, cognition by immeasurability was avoided by psychologists, leading the psychologists to focus on physical manifestations of mental processes (such as reflexes, memory, learning). Behaviorist psychology, with its philosophy of cause and effect, appealed to science, completely disregarding cognition. A stimulus (S) and response (R) could be mapped and measured. For a period of about 50 years, behaviorist theory dominated psychology.
In the 1960s, people became critical of behaviorism. For example, it could not explain the development of language. In response to this, the information processing approach was developed. This is the idea that mental operations in different stages, which take place between stimulus and response, can be broken down. Research into information processing stems from research into learning. Sequential information processing is an important feature of information processing theories. These approaches attempt to specify cognitive mechanisms to get a grip on the mind's 'black box'. New scientific tools enabled psychologists to trace the previously unobservable processes. The computer served as both an instrument and a metaphor for cognitive processing. It provided a framework for a new way of thinking about psychology. The advent of cognitive neuroscience in the 1990s changed metaphors and models. Today, cognitive psychologists are more focused on plausible modeling processes related to the improved understanding of neural networks, brain systems and single cell responses. Precisely this approach could save psychology from falling apart, as it does not divide the brain into different clusters. Instead, cognitive neuroscience recognizes that we are all social, affective, and cognitive actors in the world we live in.
How does cognition relate to 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 as objective descriptions of a stimulus environment. In addition, social psychologists consider both causes and the result of social perception and interaction in cognitive terms. And thirdly, between the supposed cause and the followed, the individual is regarded as a thinking organism, rather than an emotional organism. Cognitive structures, such as motivation, memory and attribution were clearly essential in understanding social interaction. In social psychology, five general models of the social thinker can be identified:
- The consistency seeker. The consistency theories, which appeared in the late 1950s, regarded people as consistency seekers. According to these theorists, people are driven to reduce the discomfort they experience from perceived discrepancies between their cognitions. The most famous example is the dissonance theory: when someone who has publicly announced his intention to quit smoking has just smoked a cigarette, he must evoke certain thoughts to reconcile these two cognitions. The consistency theories thus rely on perceived inconsistency. Cognitive activity is assigned a central role in this. Subjective, not objective, inconsistency is central to these theories. When inconsistency is observed, reference is madeconsiders that someone is uncomfortable and thus motivated to reduce this inconsistency. This is also known as the 'drive reduction model'. Motivation becomes the driving force behind the entire system, as it were. Motivation and cognition are therefore both important within consistency theories.
- The naive scientist. This model was introduced in the 1970s and focused on the way in which people uncover the causes of behavior. Attribution theories – which focus on how people explain both their own behavior and that of others around them (external vs. internal attribution) – came to the fore. The first hypotheses of these theories were that humans are analytic data collectors and therefore ultimately arrive at the best-founded conclusion. The role of cognition in this model is thus an outcome of reasonable rational analysis. Unlike consistency theories, which emphasize motivation, unresolved attributions, according to attribution theorists, do not constitute motivation to resolve them. According to the attribution theorists, motivation only helps to catalyze the attribution process.
- The cognitive miser. People are of course not always as rational as the naive scientist supposes. According to the cognitive miss model (1980s), people are limited in their competence to process information. According to this model, people take shortcuts (strategies that simplify complex information or problems) when given the opportunity. Initially, motivation hardly played a role. But as the cognitive miss model continued to develop, theorists began to pay attention to the influence of motivation on cognition. Social interaction became more important here.
- The motivated tactician. This view, which emerged during the 1990s, saw people as fully committed thinkers who employ multiple cognitive strategies depending on their goals, motives, and needs. In some situations, one will be motivated to make a wise decision with the aim of accuracy and adaptability. In other situations, one will be motivated to choose self-esteem or speed from a defensive point of view.
- The activated actor. Today, people are seen as activated actors. Without being aware of this, people's social concepts are almost automatically activated by their social environment. As a result, they almost inevitably activate the cognitions, feelings, evaluations, motivations, and behaviors associated with these social concepts.
Most research on social cognition shares four basic characteristics:
- Mentalism. This is the belief that cognitive representations are important. This is the first basic assumption in social cognition research. The study of social cognition is shaped by cognitive elements that people use when trying to understand other people and social interactions. General knowledge about ourselves and others allows us to predict the behavior of others and to function properly in the social sphere.
- Cognitive processing. Research on social cognition also includes cognitive processing. Cognitive processes are the ways in which cognitive elements form, operate, interact, and change over time. Behaviorists avoided the discussion of internal processing because of the belief that it could not be scientifically researched. Social cognition researchers today can measure and describe previously unexplored aspects of cognitive processes.
- Cross fertilization. Another hallmark of social cognition research is the cross-fertilization between cognitive and social psychology. Social cognition research takes elements of cognitive and social psychological research and extends them to neuroscience and other areas of psychology.
- Daily problems. Social cognition focuses on applying research to social interactions in real life. Current sweeping issues such as group behavior, propaganda, and organizational team building are all addressed within social cognition research.
The behaviorists argued that a person's cognitions were unobservable. According to them, we might as well be robots or farm animals. However, we are humans and differ from objects in various 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 inevitably complex creatures and have intentions/goals and tracks that are not visible, and that have an ambiguous and unclear influence on our behavior.
Several diverse neuroscientific techniques are used in social cognition research, 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 function and genetic analyses.
In line with the notion that humans are not things, recent studies have shown that different neuronal systems are activated during social perception than during object perception. In social perceptions, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the superior temporal sulcus (STS) are often active.
When examining the importance of the social brain, its context needs to be clarified. It is important to note that brain and cultures (environment) are not opposite explanations for the same phenomena. First, our brains are primed to take in our cultures as they socialize us. Second, cultural information is stored in our brain. Finally, people's brains change physically depending on their cultural experiences.
An important caveat to note when looking at social cognition research is that researchers have mainly focused on Western, educated, industrialized, wealthy, democratic students (WEIRD). This means that research is often not cross-culturally valid. A major distinction that can be made is the difference between cultures in which people are more independent and autonomous (mainly Western cultures) and cultures where people are more interdependent and harmonious (mainly Eastern cultures). This will be covered in the coming chapters.
In this chapter, two forms of social cognition are discussed: automatic and controlled processes. The motivated tactician refers to the tendency to rely on relatively automatic processes depending on situational requirements. These automatic processes come in various forms. People can perform actions in a thoughtless manner. First the automatic processes are discussed and then the controlled processes. Finally, several models are discussed.
Attention and encoding are the first steps of mental representation. This concerns what we see and how we handle that information. In encoding, a perceived stimulus is transformed into an internal representation. That process takes effort, and since we're cognitive misers, it means we overlook some details and adjust others. Our inferences are often flawed. Attention is what we focus on during the encoding process. When we think of something, we make a temporary mental representation. The focus is on what the conscious mind is doing at that moment. We can focus our attention on external stimuli, or we can turn them inward and focus on a memory or mental imagination. Attention generally has two components: direction (selectivity) and intensity (difficulty). If you focus selectively on this, the direction of your attention as you read this will be the content of this summary. But you may also be thinking about the events of the past weekend, or that other subject for which you still have to hand in an assignment. Attention affects our thoughts and what is stored in memory, but conscious attention is not necessary for encoding in memory.
Attentional aspects that contribute to controlled steering are working memory, competitive selection, and top-down sensitivity control. An automatic aspect of attention is bottom-up filtering of salient stimuli. Furthermore, cognitive psychologists distinguish between the amount of fundamental perceptual processing that takes place outside of focused attention (early versus late selective attention). This chapter maps out what attracts attention within social situations, as this influences all subsequent steps in social interactions.
This chapter focuses on the following concepts:
- Salience: the degree to which people/stimuli stand out compared to other people/stimuli in that environment.
- Vividness: The inherent characteristics of a person/stimulus that receive attention, regardless of the environment.
- Accessibility: The way people's attention is primed to categories and particular interpretations of stimuli that fit within the thoughts they just had or have regularly.
- Direct perception: direct initial perception of people through cognitive processing.
In this chapter several memory models are presented, including the basic memory model (the associative network approach).
Understanding the self is one of the most enthusiastically pursued goals in psychology. In the last three decades, social-cognitive researchers have risen to this challenge and have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the self.
Attribution (= the tendency to identify the social factors that lead to a particular outcome) occurs on a daily basis to explain events and behaviors of oneself and of others. This chapter discusses this subject in more detail.
To reduce our cognitive load, we use shortcuts. We can optimize our decisions in any situation by using the expected utility model and weighing all alternatives before making a decision. Yet we are not 'optimizers'; we do what is sufficient.
Although it was previously believed that inferential processes were consciously and rationally thought out, new evidence shows that this assumption is incorrect. This chapter discusses why social inferences are often wrong and whether these errors have consequences or not.
An attitude is regarded as a hypothetical mediating variable. This means that an attitude makes an inference between an observable stimulus (S) and an observable response (R) to reinforce this link. Attitudes categorize a stimulus according to evaluative dimensions, such as good versus bad.
How do we process attitudes? The chain of cognitive processes states that there are many necessary conditions for persuasive communication to influence behavior. These are a number of steps:
Everyday unconscious forms of bias are present everywhere. Together with chapter 12, this chapter will distinguish between the cognitive side of inter-group bias (stereotypes) and the affective side of inter-group bias (prejudice). Like the basic concepts of social cognition, inter-group bias can be both automatic and conscious. First, the cognitive aspects of blatant bias (conscious bias) will be discussed, then subtle bias (automatic bias).
Behavior is driven by feelings. Both feelings and behavior interact with cognition, as evidenced by inter-group relationships. This chapter discusses the emotional biases that result from cognitive biases and what the interplay between these biases and the biases looks like. Emotional biases involve qualitatively different emotions, such as fear and envy. These differentiated emotions matter in a practical sense, since they target a specific group and motivate specific behavior. In a theoretical sense, they are important because they not only describe the world, but also predict and explain it.
In the first part, various theories of intergroup cognition and emotion are discussed. The remaining sections address the idea that different emotional biases support responses to various outgroups.
The role of cognitive processes in affect has been investigated several times, focusing on two questions: what is the influence of cognition on affect and what is the influence of affect on cognition. There are many different theories, each of which contributes to this field of research. These different theories are discussed in this chapter.
Decisions are made based on weighing the costs and benefits. Cognitive processes play an important role in this, but emotions also have a meaningful influence. This chapter discusses the influence of affect on thoughts, memories, beliefs, and choices. In addition, the discussion about affect and cognition is discussed as two separate systems.
Developing cognition is important so that one knows how to behave. This chapter discusses the relationship between cognition and behavior.