What Is Social Cognition?

What is social cognition?

Social cognition is the study of how we process information (Adolphs, 1999). In other words, the process involves the way we encode, store, and retrieve information about social situations.

Currently, social cognition is the prevailing model and approach in social psychology. An alternative is behaviorism, which rejects mental processes in explaining behavior (Skinner, 1974).

Social cognition is the way we think of others. In principle, it is an effective tool for understanding social relations. Through social cognition, we understand other people’s feelings, thoughts, intentions, and social behavior.  In fact, knowing what other people are thinking and feeling can be a huge benefit.

Social cognition: a man looking at papers

How does social cognition work?

People do not approach situations as neutral observers – although we often pretend that this is the case. We have our own hopes and expectations, and they affect what we see and remember. In other words, our senses receive information, which we then interpret and analyze.  We then interpret these interpretations along with the information stored in memory.

However, this simple description does not correspond to how things always happen in real life. There are other factors, such as emotions, that affect the process. Remember that thoughts affect emotions, but emotions also affect thoughts (Damasio, 1994).

For example, when we are in a good mood, the world is (or seems to be) a happier place. When we are happy, we tend to perceive the present more optimistically and see both the past and the future more positively.

How does social cognition develop?

Social cognition develops slowly (Fiske and Taylor, 1991). We go through experimenting with observational learning and learning from mistakes. Direct experiences and exploration guide learning. However, social knowledge is very subjective; we may end up with very different interpretations of a social event.

In addition, while we have mental structures that facilitate data processing and organization, sometimes they fail. These structures or systems affect what we focus on. They also affect how we encode and retrieve information, and they can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. Self-fulfilling prophecies are prophecies that actually cause what was predicted to happen (Merton, 1948).

On the other hand, social information is partially independent of other types of information.  People who have succeeded in intelligence quotient measurements are not always as good at solving social problems.

Problem-solving skills can be learned or taught separately from intellectual abilities. For this reason, it is important to work on our various intelligences, such as emotional and cultural intelligence.

Social cognition: woman and two heads

Put yourself in the position of another person

One of the most useful models of social cognition comes from Robert Selman. Selman put forward a theory about people’s ability to see things from the social perspective of others. He believes that embracing a different social perspective gives us the power to understand ourselves and others. This allows us to react to our own behavior from the perspective of others. Selman (1977) developed 5 perspective formation steps:

  • Step 0: Undifferentiated perspective (3-6 years old).  Children around the age of 6 are not able to clearly distinguish between their own social situation and that of another. Nor can they understand that their own perception may not be correct.
  • Step 1: Socio-informative perspective (6-8 year olds). At this age, children develop the knowledge that other people may have a different perspective. However, children have little understanding from the perspective of others.
  • Step 2: Self-reflective perspective (8-10 years old). At this point, young people can adopt another person’s perspective. Brochures can already distinguish between different perspectives. They can also reflect on the motivation behind their own behavior from the perspective of the other person.
  • Step 3: Third party or “third party” perspectives (10-12 years old). Children can perceive their own perspectives, the perspectives of their peers and a neutral third person. As third-party observers, we see ourselves as a target.
  • Step 4: Societal perspective (youth and adulthood).  There are two characteristics related to young people’s perception of other people. First, they know that motives, actions, thoughts, and emotions are shaped by psychological factors. Second, they begin to appreciate that personality is a system of traits, beliefs, values, and attitudes.
The man is looking at a photo

Two ways to see social cognition

There are several ways in psychology to understand social cognition.  One of the most important ways to emphasize the social dimension of knowledge. According to this perspective, knowledge has a socio-cultural origin because it is shared by social groups.

Moscovici is the main representative of this idea (1988). He talked about “social performances,” ideas, thoughts, images, and knowledge that community members share.  Social manifestation has two functions: to know reality in order to plan activities and to facilitate communication.

The American perspective has also had a major impact (Lewin, 1977). It is a way of understanding social cognition that focuses on the individual and their psychological processes. According to this perspective, a person constructs his or her own cognitive structures from interactions with his or her physical and social environment.

In summary, social cognition is the way we process a large amount of social information every day. The stimuli and information we collect through the senses are analyzed and integrated into the systems of the mind that guide our thoughts and behaviors later.

These systems, which have already been set up, are difficult to change. As Albert Einstein said, prejudices are harder to split than atoms. First impressions remain with us unless we think critically about them.

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