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Social cognition

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Social cognition is the study of how people process social information, especially its encoding, storage, retrieval, and application to social situations. Social cognition’s focus on information processing has many affinities with its sister discipline, cognitive psychology.

Basic Processes: Representation, Accessibility, Attention and Regulation

Cognitive representations of social objects are referred to as schemas and include its prototypical attributes and familiar exemplars. They are thought to be stored in memory in relation to similar schemas and concepts in the form of an  Activation of a concept is thought to increase the accessibility of its schema and closely related concepts in the associative network. When these schemas are activated inferences beyond the information given in a particular social situation may influence thinking and social behavior, regardless of whether those inferences are accurate or not.

Two processes that increase the accessibility of schemas are salience and priming. Salience is the degree to which a particular social object stands out in relation 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 experiences immediately prior to a situation that caused a schema to be more accessible. For example watching a scary movie at a theatre late at night might increase the accessibility of frightening schemas that affect a person’s perception of shadows and background noises as potential threats.

Social cognition researchers are also interested in how new information is integrated into pre-established schemas, especially when that information is contrary with those pre-established schemas. Pre-established schemas tend to guide attention to new information. People selectively attend to information that’s 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.

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 the control of the individual. In many situations however, the schematic information that has been activated may be in conflict with the social norms of 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 that 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.

Social Cognitive Neuroscience

There has been much recent interest in the links between social cognition and brain function, particularly as neuropsychological studies have shown that brain injury (particularly to the frontal lobes) can adversely affect social judgements and interaction. The case of Phineas Gage was an early and influential example of this finding.

People diagnosed with certain mental illnesses are also known to show differences in how they process social information. 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.

It is also becoming clear that some aspects of psychological processes that promote social behaviour (such as face recognition) may be innate. Studies have shown that newborn babies, younger than one hour old can selectively recognize and respond to faces, while people with some developmental disorders such as autism or Williams syndrome may show differences in social interaction and social communication when compared to their unaffected peers.

History of Social Cognition

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. It is probably true, though, to say 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 behaviourism and rejected them as illusory.


A number of tests of social cognition have been developed to aid in the assessment of various aspects.

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Fiske, S.T. and Taylor, S.E. (1983) Social Cognition, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.


  • Morgan, D.L. (1986) Personal relationships as an interface between social networks and social cognitions, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 3:403-22.

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