Psychology, as defined by William James, is the science of mental life: it tries to understand how the mind works -- what the cognitive, emotional, and motivational structures and processes are that underlie human experience, thought, and action.
But, as the 19th-century "Chicago functionalists" taught us, mind can't be studied in isolation. Thus, as psychologists, we need to understand the relation of mind to other things. And, as social psychologists in particular, we need to understand the relation of the individual's mind to what is going on in the social world outside the individual.
Bruner and Tagiuri (1954) defined social cognition as the application of cognitive principles to the social domain:
"Placing the 'knowing of people' in the wider theoretical context of how we know the environment generally".
As such, social cognition has two aspects:
What (if anything) is different about social cognition?
By one account, construes social cognition as merely derivative of nonsocial cognition. And it's true that, since the cognitive revolution anyway, theoretical trends in social cognition have tended to follow advances in nonsocial cognition -- suggesting, perhaps, that social cognition is something of an intellectual leech on, or perhaps a dim-witted cousin of, cognition in general.
In some ways, the structure of this course matches the derivative view, insofar as its syllabus matches the canonical syllabus in standard surveys of cognitive psychology.
Perception. We began with the study of person perception and impression-formation. Here we met traditional perception issues such as the nature of the stimulus information (verbal vs. nonverbal) provided to the perceiver, and the contrast between the ecological and the constructivist views of perception.
Memory. And we continued to a discussion about how social knowledge, especially knowledge about persons, is represented in memory. And we drew on traditional associative-network models of memory to discuss how semantic knowledge of a person's traits and attitudes is represented in relation to episodic knowledge of the person's experiences and behaviors.
Thinking -- including reasoning and inference, judgment and decision-making, and problem-solving. In this course, causal attribution served as an example of the wide variety of judgments made during social interaction. There is, of course, a lot of inference in person perception, as the perceiver must go "beyond the information given" by the stimulus in order to form an impression of the person. But more generally, from the cognitive point of view social interaction represents a problem to be solved. In our discussion of social categorization we drew heavily on models of category structure drawn from nonsocial cognition. Much theorizing in social cognition makes heavy use of concepts originally developed in nonsocial cognition, such as the distinction between automatic and controlled processes, between algorithmic and heuristic processes, and "the great rationality debate" in general.
Language. Language plays a major role in social cognition, as it comprises so much of the stimulus material for person and perception (think of Asch's experiments on impression formation, not to mention the "personals" ads). Language is also an important medium for the representation of social knowledge (think of the meaning-based representations, consisting of sentence-like propositional structures). Language also plays an important role in labeling categories, and provides some of the schemata for causal attribution.
Intelligence. IQ represents individual differences in cognitive abilities, and in the traditional "abilities" view of social intelligence, which is modeled on IQ, people can be construed as socially "bright" or "dull". An alternative "knowledge" view of social intelligence simply holds that individual differences in social behavior reflect individual differences in the declarative and procedural knowledge that the individual brings to bear on the problems of social interaction.
Cognitive Development. Theories of cognitive development have often been dominated by the debate between nativism and empiricism, and that is no less true for theories of social-cognitive development. Although the Piagetian stages focus on cognitive abilities, such as the development of abstract, logical thought, the concept of egocentrism laid the foundation for an emphasis on cognitive development as the development of a theory of mind. The theory of mind, is essentially, a social theory, because it is concerned with the child's understanding of what other people believe, feel, and desire. Autism can be construed (somewhat controversially) as a specific disorder of social-cognitive development. While theories of cognitive development focus on ontogeny, clever researchers can extend our understanding of social-cognitive development phylogenetically, to chimpanzees and our other primate relatives.
Computational Models of Cognition. Increasingly, cognitive psychologists are writing theories in the form of mathematical and computational models, and social cognition is no exception. We encountered an early mathematical model in the form of Anderson's "cognitive algebra" approach to impression-formation. Also, the associative-network models of person memory have been translated into operating computer simulations. More recently, computational modeling has taken the form of "proceduralist" (Smith), and connectionist (Kunda & Thagard) models of social judgment.
Cognitive Neuroscience. Data from brain-damaged patients and brain-imaging studies have helped cognitive neuroscientists understand the neural substrates of cognition. And here again, social-cognitive neuroscientists have begun to identify the brain modules, centers, and systems that might be involved in specifically social cognitive processes.
Another point of view social cognition is independent of cognition: After all, people like Bruner, Asch, and Heider were talking about social cognition at the height of the behaviorist hegemony in psychology, before the cognitive revolution of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most other psychologists weren't talking about cognition at all.
Others, like Ostrom (1984), have taken the completely opposite position, that social cognition is sovereign. From Ostrom's point of view, all knowledge is social knowledge, in that the interactions with the environment by which we acquire knowledge are essentially social in nature. Ostrom makes the interesting point that children's thinking is largely animistic, attributing intentionality to objects, like blocks and trucks, that don't have minds. To the extent that this is true, then the course of cognitive development consists in, first, a generalization from the primary social case to the secondary nonsocial case; only later, when children learn the differences between social and nonsocial objects, do social and nonsocial cognition develop independently.
On the other hand, Holyoak and Gordon (1984) have followed C.P. Snow (1948) in suggesting that there are simply "two cultures" in the study of cognition, one represented by social psychology and the other by mainstream cognitive psychology. Drawing on an anthropological analogy, they suggest that at any particular time one culture may temporarily dominate the other, but that in the final analysis each culture learns from the other, and each culture reconstructs the other. (Does neuroscience represent a "third culture"?)
In some sense, social cognition might indeed be primary. After all, humans are social creatures as well as intelligent creatures. We live in groups where we compete and cooperate, we mate for life (more or less), we tend our young (more or less), and each individual lives his or her life in the context of culture and social history. If the human mind evolved to serve adaptation to the conditions of existence, and if the conditions of our existence are intrinsically social, then these social conditions might have given the human mind special properties that other minds don't have.
But this doesn't mean that social cognition is primary. It might just mean that social cognition is different in some ways. This course is predicated on the notion that the study of social cognition can make an active contribution to our understanding of cognition, by confronting issues that might otherwise get ignored.
There are several ways in which social and nonsocial cognition differ quantitatively -- that is, by degree. The following features are present in nonsocial cognition, but they are arguably even more present in the social case.
Ambiguity of Stimulus: According to the constructivist perspective that has dominated the study of perception since the time of Helmholtz, stimulation is inherently ambiguous -- meaning that the same stimulus can support a large number of different percepts, or mental representations. This is even more so in the social case: It is difficult for a perceiver to distinguish between a "real" fight and a pretend one.
As a corollary, it is more difficult in the social case to verify one's percept -- to check it against objective reality, or even to check it against someone else's perception. Two social perceivers may disagree, but it will not necessarily be obvious which perception is correct.
Conflicting Cues. Stimulus information may conflict between, and even within, modalities. When two people are engaged in conversation, and one person is smiling while the other one is frowning, what is going on?
Context Effects: Again, according to constructivism, figures are always perceived against their ground, and the context in which a stimulus is encountered will affect the way that stimulus is perceived. All the more so in the social case: two people fighting in a bar will be perceived quite differently from two people fighting on a theatrical stage.
Emotion and Motivation. Kant asserted that there were "three irreducible faculties of mind: knowledge, feeling, and desire". As such, psychology has to be a science of emotion and motivation as well as of cognition.
Emotional and motivational processes affect nonsocial cognition, as represented by the "New Look" in perception and studies of emotional arousal and memory. But social cognition is even more concerned with the impact of emotions and motives on perception, memory, and thought.
Moreover, cognitive processes can affect the individual's emotional and motivational states. Social psychology is particularly interested in the cognitive construction of emotion and motivation, as represented by the Schachter-Singer theory of emotion, and the work of Lepper and others on intrinsic motivation.
Cognitive psychology offers no way to study emotion and motivation except as byproducts of cognition -- as cognitive constructions. However, if we take Kant seriously, emotion and motivation are not ultimately reducible to cognition. Interestingly, psychology has not developed entire programs of "affective" and "conative" psychology, paralleling the programs of cognitive psychology that are universal within the discipline. As it happens, social psychology has been particularly central to the study of emotional and motivational processes independent of cognition, spurring the "affective revolution" in psychology, as well as a kind of "conative revolution" as well.
Social Cues. When the cues in the environment are ambiguous or conflicting, we often turn to other people for additional cues as to what to think. Asch showed this to be the case in nonsocial perception, in his classic experiments on conformity. And Darley and Latane showed that this was the case in social perception, as in their studies of pluralistic ignorance in bystander intervention.
Social Learning. From an empiricist point of view, knowledge is acquired through experience -- experiences of learning. In the nonsocial domain, much of this learning occurs by virtue of direct experience, such as classical and instrumental conditioning. But, as Bandura pointed out, a great deal of learning is vicarious, based on example (observation, imitation, modeling) or precept (deliberate and sponsored teaching). Social learning is a particularly important mechanism for personality development and change.
Mind in Action: Cognitive psychology generally has an impoverished and molecular approach to action, construing it mostly in terms of response latencies in keypressing, typing, and grasping objects. But social psychology, and in particular social cognition, offers a much richer context for studying action at the molar level of what people actually do in the mundane and monumental social interactions that take place in the ordinary course of everyday living.
In addition to these differences in degree, and in emphasis, there are at least two ways in social cognition appears to differ qualitatively, in kind, from the nonsocial form.
Modularity. It is a cardinal principle of cognitive neuroscience that various cognitive functions are performed by dedicated brain modules, centers, or systems. To the extent that social-cognitive functions are performed by different brain modules than non-social cognitive functions, that would count as a qualitative difference between social and nonsocial cognition.
Self as Subject and Object. In the nonsocial case, the observer perceives things in the external world. That's true in the social case, too, as when the observer perceives other people and their behavior in social situations. But social cognition involves self-perception, as well. Social cognition is the only instance where the self is both the subject of cognition -- the person doing the cognizing -- and the object of cognition -- the "thing" being cognized.
The objects of nonsocial perception are passive objects of the
perceiver's activity: the object has certain properties, such as
size, shape, distance, and motion, and the perceiver's job is to
perceive them. But in the social case, the objects of
perception are themselves sentient beings -- they know they are
being perceived, and they react to being perceived by trying to
shape the perceiver's perception of them. The perceiver knows
this, and tries to correct accordingly, by "reading between the
lines". Thus --
In social cognition, the object of impression-formation is simultaneously engaged in impression-management and self-presentation. There is simply nothing like this in nonsocial perception. Put another way, in social cognition there is a kind of equality between the perceiver and the object of perception, such that the object is trying to control the perceiver's perception of it. In other words, the perceiver's attempts at impression formation are countered by the target's attempts as impression management. Nothing like this happens in the nonsocial case.
These qualitative differences are critical, because they suggest the critical difference between nonsocial and social cognition. Cognition has to do with how we acquire knowledge -- how we use our minds to form and transform mental representations of the world in which we live.
In the nonsocial case, the objects of cognition have an existence that is independent of the mind. The moon exists, even if we might be mistaken about its relative size on the horizon and at zenith.
But in the social case, to a great extent at least, the objects of cognition are not independent of the mind. In social cognition, belief creates reality.
Through the self-fulfilling prophecy, and interpersonal expectancy effects (both behavioral and perceptual confirmation), our individual expectations, and our interpretations of ambiguous behavior, create objective conditions in the world.
Through social constructivism in general, groups of individuals create objective social reality through their shared beliefs.
So, in the final analysis, there are two kinds of
In order to understand social cognition, we need to understand not just how the individual mind works to perceive, remember, and think and talk about other people and the environments in which we meet them; we also need to understand the social forces that operate outside the individual, and how these organizations, institutions, societies, and cultures operate cognitively.
From this point of view, it is time for an interdisciplinary cognitive social science paralleling cognitive neuroscience, but focusing on the relations between individual and social cognition.
This page last modified 05/01/2014.