Social Cognition

What Is Social Cognition?

The aim of social psychology Opens in new window is to understand the social nature of being human. Social cognition is an area of social psychology, with the narrower aim of understanding how humans come to understand the social world and their position in it. Research and theorizing in social cognition flow from earlier work on person perception, attribution and attitudes. It draws heavily from the methods and concepts of cognitive psychology.

It is sometimes noted that social psychology Opens in new window is a discipline with a short history but a long past (Allport, 1985). The short history is often dated to an early experiment by Triplett (1898) showing that cyclists cycle faster with an audience than when alone (see Social Facilitation Opens in new window); the long past to the thinking of the ancient Greek philosophers.

Either way, there has always been a focus on how people make sense of the world. This is also a defining feature of social cognition— understanding how people understand themselves, the worlds (physical, social, environmental) around them, and their relationship with those worlds. Understanding the world is a central theme in social cognition.

It is probably impossible to find a single-sentence definition that would capture all that is contained within the category ‘social cognition’ or that would satisfy all the researchers who apply the label to themselves. Nonetheless, Ostrom (1994, p. ix) suggests the following:

  • At the heart of social cognition is the conceptual orientation that has emerged from the information-processing perspective in cognitive psychology, a perspective that recently has expanded to include cognitive science. The social cognition approach is based on the conviction that constructs relevant to cognitive representation and process are fundamental to understanding all human responses, regardless of whether those responses are social or nonsocial in nature. Cognitive psychologists have applied these concepts to the analysis of a wide range of phenomena, such as text comprehension, recall, recognition, classification, reasoning, vision, and audition. Social cognition researchers share this theoretical perspective, differing solely in the phenomena to be understood.

Now we can accept, for a fact, that social cognition is an approach or a perspective, not a theory per se, and that it draws heavily from the methods and concepts of cognitive psychology. But what makes it social? Why do we need the adjective at all?

Important Hint!  

Social cognition is an area of social psychology, with the narrower aim of understanding how people understand themselves, the worlds (physical, social, environmental) around them, and their relationship with those worlds. Understanding the world is a central theme in social cognition. It draws heavily from the methods and concepts of cognitive psychology.

Ostrom’s definition above simply asserts without elaboration that social cognition and cognitive psychology differ ‘solely in the phenomena to be understood’. We need to elaborate more clearly what is social about social cognition.

What’s so social about Social Cognition?

Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor (1991, 2008) argue that social cognition research addresses important social issues and real-world problems such as stereotyping, prejudice Opens in new window and intergroup relations. But this still leaves unclear the fundamentally important issue of whether these ‘real-world issues’ can be reduced to, or understood fully in the terms of, cognitive psychology.

They also describe social cognition as unabashedly mentalistic and fundamentally concerned with cognitive process (Fiske & Taylor, 2010). Thus social cognition, as a perspective, rests on a tacit assumption that ‘real world issues’ can be understood in more basic, individualistic, cognitive, ‘mentalistic’ processes: these cognitive processes are therefore seen as the ‘building blocks’ for understanding real-world issues.

Fiske and Taylor elaborate further the ways in which social cognition is social. Starting from the apparently trite observation—which rapidly becomes not at all trite or obvious on analysis—that ‘people are not things’, Fiske and Taylor (2010, pp.16-17) enumerate nine ‘important differences between people and things’.

We can add to this list features offered by other researchers (e.g., Leyens & Dardenne, 1996), subtract some points of overlap, and suggests the following points as critical meanings of social in social cognition:

  • people intentionally influence their environment;
  • people, as objects of perception, perceive back (‘social cognition is mutual cogniton’), and joint perception is negotiated;
  • social cognition implicates the self as subject as well as object;
  • the accuracy, or veracity, of cognitions about people is harder, or impossible, to assess than for non-social objects.
  • social cognition involves social explanation;
  • social cognition is shared.

Each of the points in this list of the ways in which people are not things is undoubtedly important. But it is not clear beyond assertion that social cognition, as a perspective which is ‘unabashedly mentalistic’ and which relies on the methods and concepts of cognitive psychology, can provide an adequate understanding of ‘social’ phenomena.

In sum, social cognition is concerned with how we think about the social world, and in particular how we select, interpret, and use information to make judgments about the world.