This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 15 table of contents.

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, a Harvard-educated researcher who he noted is "one of the most respected people in this field." Fiske said that social cognition is about how people think about other people and themselves.

What was Fiske's definition of social cognition?

Susan Fiske

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.

e interview be used to illustrate her 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, because 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, which we will describe after attribution theory.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey