Social cognition is the encoding, storage, retrieval, and processing, of information in the brain, which relates to conspecifics (members of the same species). At one time social cognition referred specifically to an approach to social psychology in which these processes were studied according to the methods of cognitive psychology and information processing theory. However, the term has come to be more widely used across psychology and cognitive neuroscience. For example, it is used to refer to various social abilities disrupted in autism and other disorders. In cognitive neuroscience the biological basis of social cognition is investigated. Developmental psychologists study the development of social cognition abilities.
Social cognition came to prominence with the rise of cognitive psychology in the late 1960s and early 1970s and is now the dominant model and approach in mainstream social psychology. Common to social cognition theories is the idea that information is represented in the brain as "cognitive elements" such as schemas, attributions, or stereotypes. A focus on how these cognitive elements are processed is often employed. Social cognition therefore applies and extends many themes, theories and paradigms from cognitive psychology, for example in reasoning (representativeness heuristic, base rate fallacy and confirmation bias), attention (automaticity and priming) and memory (schemas, primacy and recency). It is very likely that social psychology was always a lot more cognitive than mainstream psychology to begin with, as it traditionally discussed internal mental states such as beliefs and desires when mainstream psychology was dominated by behaviorism.
A notable theory of social cognition is social schema theory, although this is not the basis of all social cognition studies (for example, see attribution theory). It has been suggested that other disciplines in social psychology such as social identity theory and social representations may be seeking to explain largely the same phenomena as social cognition, and that these different disciplines might be merged into a "coherent integrated whole". A parallel paradigm has arisen in the study of action, termed motor cognition, which is concerned with understanding the representation of action and the associated process.
Social schema theory builds on and uses terminology from schema theory in cognitive psychology, which describes how ideas or "concepts" are represented in the brain and how they are categorized. According to this view, when we see or think of a concept a mental representation or schema is "activated" bringing to mind other information which is linked to the original concept by association. This activation often happens unconsciously. As a result of activating such schemas, judgements are formed which go beyond the information actually available, since many of the associations the schema evokes extend outside the given information. This may influence social cognition and behaviour regardless of whether these judgements are accurate or not. For example, if an individual is introduced as a teacher, then a "teacher schema" may be activated. Subsequently, we might associate this person with wisdom or authority, or past experiences of teachers that we remember and consider important.
When a schema is more accessible this means that it can be more quickly activated and used in a particular situation. Two cognitive processes that increase the accessibility of schemas are salience and priming. Salience is the degree to which a particular social object stands out relative to other social objects in a situation. The higher the salience of an object the more likely that schemas for that object will be made accessible. 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 experience immediately prior to a situation that causes a schema to be more accessible. For example, watching a scary movie late at night might increase the accessibility of frightening schemas, increasing the likelihood that a person will perceive shadows and background noises as potential threats.
Social cognition researchers are interested in how new information is integrated into pre-established schemas, especially when that information contrasts with the existing schema. For example, a student may have a pre-established schema that all teachers are assertive and bossy. After encountering a teacher who is timid and shy, a social cognition researcher might be interested in how the student will integrate this new information with his/her existing teacher schema. Pre-established schemas tend to guide attention to new information, as people selectively attend to information that is consistent with the schema and ignore information that is inconsistent. This is referred to as a confirmation bias. Sometimes inconsistent information is sub-categorized and stored away as a special case, leaving the original schema intact without any alterations. This is referred to as subtyping.
Social cognition researchers are also interested in studying the regulation of activated schemas. It is believed that the situational activation of schemas is automatic, meaning that it is outside individual conscious control. In many situations however, the schematic information that has been activated may be in conflict with the social norms of the situation in which case an individual is motivated to inhibit the influence of the schematic information on their thinking and social behavior. Whether a person will successfully regulate the application of the activated schemas is dependent on individual differences in self-regulatory ability and the presence of situational impairments to executive control. High self-regulatory ability and the lack of situational impairments on executive functioning increase the likelihood that individuals will successfully inhibit the influence of automatically activated schemas on their thinking and social behavior. However, when people stop suppressing the influence of the unwanted thoughts, a rebound effect can occur where the thought becomes hyper-accessible.
Social psychologists have become increasingly interested in the influence of culture on social cognition. Although people of all cultures use schemas to understand the world, the content of our schemas has been found to differ for individuals based on their cultural upbringing. For example, one study interviewed a Scottish settler and a Bantu herdsman from Swaziland and compared their schemas about cattle. Because cattle are essential to the lifestyle of the Bantu people, the Bantu herdsmen's schemas for cattle were far more extensive than the schemas of the Scottish settler. The Bantu herdsmen was able to distinguish his cattle from dozens of others, while the Scottish settler was not.
Studies have found that culture influences social cognition in other ways too. In fact, cultural influences have been found to shape some of the basic ways in which people automatically perceive and think about their environment. For example, a number of studies have found that people who grow up in East Asian cultures such as China and Japan tend to develop holistic thinking styles, whereas people brought up in Western cultures like Australia and the USA tend to develop analytic thinking styles. The typically Eastern holistic thinking style is a type of thinking in which people focus on the overall context and the ways in which objects relate to each other. For example, if an Easterner was asked to judge how a classmate is feeling then he/she might scan everyone's faces in the class, and then use this information to judge how the individual is feeling. On the other hand, the typically Western analytic thinking style is a type of thinking style in which people focus on individual objects and neglect to consider the surrounding context. For example, if a Westerner was asked to judge how a classmate is feeling then he/she might focus only on the classmate's face in order to make the judgment.
Nisbett (2003) suggested that cultural differences in social cognition may stem from the various philosophical traditions of the East (i.e. Confucianism and Buddhism) versus the Greek philosophical traditions (i.e. of Aristotle and Plato) of the West. However, recent research indicates that differences in social cognition may originate from physical differences in the environments of the two cultures. One study found that scenes from Japanese cities were 'busier' than those in the USA as they contain more objects which compete for attention. In this study, the Eastern holistic thinking style (and focus on the overall context) was attributed to the busier nature of the Japanese physical environment.
Social cognitive neuroscience
Early interest in the relationship between brain function and social cognition includes the case of Phineas Gage, whose behaviour was reported to have changed after an accident damaged one or both of his frontal lobes. More recent neuropsychological studies have shown that brain injuries disrupt social cognitive processes. For example, damage to the frontal lobes can affect emotional responses to social stimuli, performance on Theory of Mind tasks. In the temporal lobe, damage to the fusiform gyrus can lead to the inability to recognize faces.
People with psychological disorders such as autism, psychosis, Williams syndrome, antisocial personality disorder, Fragile X and Turner's syndrome show differences in social behavior compared to their unaffected peers. Parents with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show disturbances in at least one aspect of social cognition: namely, joint attention with their young children only after a laboratory-induced relational stressor as compared to healthy parents without PTSD. However, whether social cognition is underpinned by domain-specific neural mechanisms is still an open issue. There is now an expanding research field examining how such conditions may bias cognitive processes involved in social interaction, or conversely, how such biases may lead to the symptoms associated with the condition.
The development of social cognitive processes in infants and children has also been researched extensively (see developmental psychology). For example, it has been suggested that some aspects of psychological processes that promote social behavior (such as face recognition) may be innate. Consistent with this, very young babies recognize and selectively respond to social stimuli such as the voice, face and scent of their mother.
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