Social cognition is a sub-topic of social psychology that focuses on how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations. It focuses on the role that cognitive processes play in our social interactions. The way we think about others plays a major role in how we think, feel, and interact with the world around us.
For example, imagine that you are getting ready to go on a blind date. Not only do you worry about the impression and signals that you are sending to the other person, you are also concerned with interpreting the signals given by the other individual. How do you form an impression of this person? What meaning do you read into the other person's behavior?
This is just one example of how social cognition influences a single social interaction, but you can probably think of many more examples from your daily life. We spend a considerable portion of every day interacting with others, which is why an entire branch of psychology formed to help understand how we feel, think, and behave in social situations.
Questions About Social Cognition
- How do we interpret other people's feelings and emotions? How do we figure out what they are thinking or feeling? What cues or indicators do we use to make these assumptions?
- What influence do our thoughts have on our feelings?
- How do we develop attitudes? What role do these attitudes play in our social lives?
- How is self-concept formed and how does it influence our relationships with others?
- What mental processes influence person perception, or how we form impressions of other people?
Defining Social Cognition
"Thus the study of the processes involved in perceiving each other and coming to "know what we know" about the people in our world is essentially a question not only of what behavior we have seen, but of our cognition as individual perceivers-our social cognition. Social cognition, therefore, is the study of the mental processes involved in perceiving, attending to, remembering, thinking about, and making sense of the people in our social world."
(Gordon B. Moskowitz, Social Cognition: Understanding Self and Others)
"Social cognition is a conceptual and empirical approach to understanding social psychological topics by investigating the cognitive underpinnings of whatever social phenomenon is being studied. That is, its focus is on an analysis of how information is processed, stored, represented in memory, and subsequently used in perceiving and interacting with the social world. Social cognition is not a content area within social psychology; rather, it is an approach to sudying any topic area in social psychology. Thus, a social cognition perspective can be adopted in studying topics as wide-ranging as person perception, attitudes and attitude change, stereotyping and prejudice, decision-making, the self-concept, social communication and influence, and intergroup discrimination."
(David L. Hamilton (Ed.)., Social Cognition: Key Reading in Social Psychology)
On Cultural Differences
"One of the cornerstones of social cognition theory and research is that different individuals may understand the same situation quite differently, if they view it through the lenses of different knowledge structures, goals, and feelings. Kitayama and his colleagues (1997) reasoned that different cultures may give rise to different collective, culturally shared ways of constructing, defining, and extracting meaning from situations. Similar situations may therefore carry different meaning in different cultures...As individuals follow the dictates of their respective cultures, fulfiling the culturally dictated patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, they ultimately reinforce the very culture that had given rise to these patterns in the first place. As you think and act in accordance with your culture, you support and reproduce it."
(Ziva Kunda, Social Cognition: Making Sense of People)
On Possible Shortcomings
"Currently, research and theory in social cognition are driven by an overwhelming individualistic orientation which forgets that the contents of cognition originate in social life, in human interaction and communication. Unfortunately, the information processing models central to social cognition focus on cognitive processes at the expense of content and context. As such, societal, collective, shared, interactive, and symbolic features of human thought, experience, and interaction are often ignored and forgotten."
(Augoustinos, Walker, & Donaghue, Social Cognition: An Integrated Introduction)