Summary: Social Cognition

Susan Fiske described social cognition as "how people think about other people and themselves and how they come to some kind of coherent understanding of each other." Cognitive dissonance theory led to the first great wave of social cognition research, although it occurred before the term social cognition was popular. Next came a focus on attribution theory, which is all about the theories people invent to explain the behavior of other people and themselves. To make an attribution is to assign credit or blame for a behavior. Generally this means making a cause-effect analysis in which either the role of the person or the situation is emphasized.

Anger involves attribution, because it occurs when a bad situation is interpreted as being under somebody else's control. Attribution can have dramatic consequences on behavior. The Yanomamo tribe attributes sickness to actions of medicine men in neighboring tribes, so they are perpetually at war.

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to interpret one's own behavior as due to external circumstances, while other people's behavior is interpreted as being due to internal factors such as their motives or personality.

Person perception is another major type of social cognition research. In many cases, people form first impressions very quickly, based on stereotypes, which can be seen as a form of cognitive economy or shortcut. Snap judgments are affected by verbal descriptions, shown by Asch in some classic experiments. They can also be affected by visual cues, particularly by attractiveness.

Ellen Berscheid and colleagues demonstrated a halo effect due to attractiveness. Attractive people are assumed to be smarter, healthier, more sociable, and to have other favorable traits, even those (like sensitive and bold) that seem to contradict each other. In some cases, however, beauty may lead to negative stereotypes, as when a beautiful but quiet person is assumed to be stuck up.

Robert Rosenthal is famous for his studies of self-fulfilling prophecy in social situations. One study showed that randomly selected children would leap forward in ability during the school year if their teachers expected them to, apparently because the teachers changed their behaviors.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey