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Social Cognition

In the book Psychology is Social: Readings and Conversations in Social Psychology (1994), editor Edward Krupat introduced the topic of social cognition by interviewing Susan Fiske. Fiske was a Harvard-educated researcher who Krupat noted was "one of the most respected people in this field."

portrait of Fiske
Susan Fiske in 1994

The interview started like this:

Krupat : If we are going to talk about the field known as social cognition, perhaps you could start out by telling me what it is all about?

Fiske: The simplest answer is that it deals with how people think about other people and themselves and how they come to some kind of coherent understanding of each other. Sometimes what I tell people on airplanes is it's about how people form first impressions of strangers. That's not quite right, but on air­planes it's an effective conversation-stopper when necessary.

What was Fiske's definition of social cognition?

When I first read the interview, I found myself rereading that passage, trying to figure out what Fiske meant, particularly with the statement, "It's a conversation-stopper when necessary."

Why would such a definition be a con­versation-stopper? Probably people get worried about the impression they might make, when they realize they are talking to a psychologist who specializes in "how people form first impressions of strangers."

And why would she need a conversa­tion-stopper in airports? Probably she was flying to and from professional meetings and conventions frequently, and men tried to strike up conversations with her. Such intrusions would not always be welcome.

Then I realized this was a good exam­ple of social cognition. I was "trying to come to a coherent understanding" of her comment. Her informal definition of social cognition–how people form first impressions of strangers–also fit, be­cause this was my first impression of Susan Fiske.

Fiske (1993) traced historical develop­ments in social cognition through several phases. The first was the era of congru­ence theories such as Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. This lasted until the late 1960s.

The second phase of social cognition research cited by Fiske was a focus on attribution theory, which we will discuss next. The third phase was an emphasis on person perception (next page).

One could also identify a fourth phase that emerged after Fiske wrote about the first three phases in 1993. Research on priming generated well over 10,000 experiments in the late 1990s and early years of the 20th Century. That is discussed last in the chapter.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory was first proposed in a book called The Psychology of Inter­personal Relations by Fritz Heider in 1958. Heider said we all act like amateur scientists, in social situations.

We try to understand other people by inventing theories to explain behavior. Most often, we theorize that a person is acting because of internal predisposi­tions, or external pressure...but not both.

An attribution (AT-trib-U-shun) is an assignment of responsibility. It is a cause-effect analysis of behavior.

As Heider pointed out, we typically explain behavior in one of two ways. We attribute the behavior to the person or we attribute the behavior to the situation.

For example, suppose we heard that a friend flunked out of school. Heider would say we then build a theory of what caused this event, and of course it will be influenced by views and beliefs and prejudices and assumptions we make about the friend and his or her circumstances.

If we blame it on the person, we probably feel it is the friend's fault that he or she flunked out of school. If we blame it on the situation, we might feel circumstances were overwhelming. It was not our friend's fault.

This illustrates the difference between attributing a behavior to a person or a situation. This affects behavior. People sometimes act entirely differently, depending on which attribution they make in a particular situation.

What are attributions to the person versus the situation?

Obviously it is an oversimplification to attribute (a-TRIB-ute) a complex event like flunking out of school to one factor or another. Surely the true explanation will often involve an interaction of the person and the situation.

While we might acknowledge this intellectually, Heider had the insight that people tend to act as if it is one or the other, not an interaction between the two. It is almost like a binary decision.

For example, at our institution, a student who disappears in the middle of a school term is assigned a failing grade. The default assumption is that such behavior is the student's fault.

However, there is an appeals process by which the student can have those F's converted into less damaging W grades (which stand for withdrawal).

To get the Fs changed to Ws, the student must persuade a committee that circumstances beyond the student's control were responsible for the student failing to attend class. (If the student was attending class and got an F, it could not be converted to a W, no matter what.)

A divorce in the family, a serious auto accident, even an emotional break-up with a former boyfriend or girlfriend all might work as excuses. But the student had to convince the committee that these circumstances were beyond the student's control.

How does a grade appeal process illustrate the importance of persuading people to change their attributions?

In this appeals process, then, the challenge for the student was to create situational attribution in the committee. A social psychologist could probably do an interesting study of factors influencing this process.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

When social psychologists began to study attribution they found most people had a tendency to explain negative things about themselves by blaming forces beyond their control. In other words, they blamed the situation. Poor behavior of other people, however, was typically blamed on the person.

What is the "fundamental attribution error?"

People made an external attribution of their own behavior and an internal attribution of other people's behavior. Often there was no evidence to justify this type of attribution, but it was very common, so this cognitive bias was called the fundamental attribution error (Ross, Amabile, and Steinmetz, 1977).

Consider the plight of homeless people. If you found yourself on the street without a place to stay, then (according to the fundamental attribution error) you would probably say you were not at fault. You would think you were homeless because of forces beyond your control: being fired from a job, being asked to pay rents which were too high, or just having a run of bad luck.

However, if you saw another person who was homeless, then (if you were typical) you might blame that person. You might think, "That person should get a job" or "That person is probably a drug addict."

Locus of Control

One version of attribution theory that received a lot of research attention was Rotter's locus of control theory. Julian Rotter (1966) agreed with Heider that the difference between internal attribution (person) and external attribution (situation) was important to humans. He pointed out that we also make attributions about our own behaviors.

Some people consistently explain the events of their lives as involving powers beyond their control, like God or fate. Others consistently explain the events of their lives as following from their own decisions.

What was Rotter's locus of control concept?

Rotter (pronounced "rotor") proposed the concept of locus of control to capture the distinction between localizing the control of one's actions within oneself or in the environment. People who consistently believe that events are caused by factors beyond their personal control are called externalizers. They are said to have an external locus of control.

People who consistently take responsi­bility for their own actions, or who feel they have the power to do something about a situation, are said to have an internal locus of control. Bandura's self-efficacy concept of 1977 identified the same trait. It is a feeling that one has control or can make a difference.

Rotter developed a paper-and-pencil test for determining locus of control. It involved 29 forced-choice items and was easy to administer.

After the test was published, hundreds of locus-of-control experiments were performed in the 1970s and 1980s. The typical experiment correlated scores on the Rotter Scale with some other personality variable such as prejudice, intensity of religious belief, or motivation to advance in a job.

What is a case in which internal locus of control is beneficial?

An early study showed (for example) that the reactions of people to tornado warnings depended upon their locus of control. People with an internal locus of control (internalizers) would take action to minimize their chances of injury, such as taking refuge in a bathroom (which is more likely to survive intact than other areas of a house).

By contrast, people with external locus of control (externalizers) were likely to adopt a fatalistic attitude. Such people might say, "If it's time for me to die, it's time for me to die; there's nothing I can do about it." They often took no protective action. In this case, being an externalizer was harmful.

What is a case in which external locus of control, encouraged by "therapy," was helpful?

On other occasions, an external locus of control may be beneficial. An internalizer may blame himself or herself for negative events and grow discouraged. An exter­nalizer may stay hopeful that circum­stances will change.

For example, Wilson and Linville (1982, 1985) conducted several studies using first year college students who were at risk academically, suffering from poor academic performance. Half the group was given "attribution therapy," informed that such problems were common during the first year, and that grades typically went up in the second year.

The other group was provided with emotional support, but their attributions were left unchanged. The results were clear. The first group–encouraged to make an external attribution instead of blaming themselves for failure–performed better on tests after the therapy, and they earned better grades the following year.

Attribution theory, like many other older theories in psychology, has never really been disproved. Its peak of popularity came in the mid-1980s and now it is more or less taken for granted.

Here is some Google ngram data about some of these perspectives that Fiske identified as older traditions in social cognition. The Google ngram tool is imperfect; the newest statistics are nine years old, and context is not taken into account, so any reference to "cognitive dissonance" would be counted, whether in a popular book or scholarly journal article. Nevertheless, this can give us a rough idea of when interest in these ideas was greatest.

Google ngram data shows self-efficacy on the way up
Google ngram data about some social cognition concepts

Cognitive dissonance started in 1956 and peaked in 1973. It is still around but somewhat obscure, although not as obscure as attribution theory which peaked in 1983. Locus of control peaked around 1984-1987 but is still more frequently referenced than the general term social cognition.

Self-efficacy has headed steadily upward in usage statistics since Bandura introduced the term in the late 1970s. Part of the reason for its popularity is that the concept is used outside social cognition (for example, in studies of psychotherapy outcomes and positive psychology).


Fiske, S. T. (1993). Social cognition and social perception. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 155-194.

Heider F. The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley

Krupat, E. (1994) Psychology is Social. New York: HarperCollins.

Ross, L. D., Amabile, T. M., & Steinmetz, J. L. (1977) Social roles, social control, and biases in social-perception processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 485-494.

Ross, L. & Nisbell, R. E. (1991) The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rotter, J. (1966) Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80, no. 1 Whole No. 609.

Wilson, T. D., & Linville, P. W. (1982). Improving the academic performance of college freshmen: Attribution therapy revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 367-376.

Wilson, T. D., & Linville, P. W. (1985). Improving the performance of college freshmen with attributional techniques. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 287-293.

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