Social Cognition

About the time that experimental psychology was trying to solve the problem of rat behavior, social psychology was trying to solve the problem of mind, and for several decades it stood virtually alone in its attempt to develop an experimental science of mental phenomena such as belief, judgment, inference, attitude, affect, and MOTIVATION (e.g., Allport 1954; Asch 1952; Heider 1958; Lewin 1951). Defined broadly, social cognition refers to those aspects of mental life that enable and are shaped by social experience, and in this sense, social cognition is among social psychology's perdurable concerns.

Although social psychology has been a cognitive science for the better part of a century, it was nonetheless profoundly influenced by the "cognitive revolution" that took place in its neighbor discipline during the 1960s and 1970s. Defined narrowly, social cognition refers to an intellectual movement (circa 1975) that borrowed the techniques, theories, and metaphors of the new cognitive psychology and brought them to bear on traditional social psychological problems, such as attitude structure and change (see COGNITIVE DISSONANCE), causal attribution (see ATTRIBUTION THEORY; CAUSAL REASONING), social inference (see JUDGMENT HEURISTICS), CATEGORIZATION and STEREOTYPING, SELF-KNOWLEDGE and self-deception (see SELF), and the like. The social cognition movement was characterized by (a) its allegiance to the information processing metaphor, which suggested that mental phenomena are properly explained by describing a sequence of hypothetical operations and structures that might produce them; (b) its emphasis on MENTAL REPRESENTATION with an attendant lack of emphasis on motivation, emotion, behavior, and social interaction; (c) its conviction that social cognition was a special case of cognition, and that theories of the former should thus be grounded in theories of the latter; and (d) its penchant for highly controlled experimental methods that maximized internal validity rather than ECOLOGICAL VALIDITY.

The movement was enormously influential, and in just a few years it came to dominate social psychology's intellectual landscape, giving rise to new journals, new societies, new graduate training programs, and new textbooks. Suddenly, social psychologists were theorizing about activation and inhibition, arguing about schemas and exemplars, manipulating cognitive load and search set size, and measuring interference effects and reaction times. The social cognition movement brought social psychology into the experimental mainstream, and for a while it looked as though other approaches within social psychology might soon be obsolete. But as enthusiasms often do, this one exceeded its warrant in at least two ways. First, the new experimental techniques did indeed provide more precise answers than social psychologists were used to receiving, but to smaller questions than social psychologists were used to asking. Cognitive psychology was able to set aside the problems of motivation, emotion, and action while concentrating on more tractable issues, but these problems were among social psychology's core concerns. To ignore them was to let the method pose the question rather than deliver the answer, and to many social psychologists, that seemed to be putting things back end first. Second, the social cognition movement was predicated on the assumption that social and nonsocial cognition are only superficially distinct, and that a single theory could thus explain both instances quite nicely. Alas, it is becoming increasingly clear that although all cognitive processes do share some basic, defining features, the mind is not an all-purpose information processing device that understands social objects in the same way that it understands tomatoes, giraffes, and nonsense syllables. Rather, it seems to be a family of highly specialized modules, many of which are dedicated explicitly to social tasks (see DOMAIN SPECIFICITY and MODULARITY OF MIND). The human brain is the evolutionary adaptation of an organism whose survival is largely dependent on its relations with others, and thus it is not surprising that special functions should develop to parse, understand, and remember the social world (see EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY and MACHIAVELLIAN INTELLIGENCE HYPOTHESIS). In some ways, then, the social cognition movement's attempt to reduce social cognition to more general information-processing principles was a step in the wrong direction.

Like most intellectual movements, the social cognition movement's early excesses have been forgotten as its considerable wisdom has been incorporated into the mainstream. Indeed, the phrase social cognition no longer has much discriminating power because virtually all social psychologists are comfortable with the information-processing metaphor, fluent in its languages, and familiar with its techniques. The wall between social and cognitive psychology has never been thinner, and the two disciplines are distinguished more by topical emphasis and aesthetic sensibility than by theoretical orientation. Nonetheless, their separate histories allow each to play an important role for the other. Social psychology has always been driven by intellectual problems rather than by methodological innovations, which means that social psychologists have often had to look to their neighbors for new scientific tools and new conceptual metaphors. Cognitive psychologists have given both in abundance. On the other hand, social psychology's problem-focus has allowed it to maintain a steady orbit around a core set of issues and resist the faddish forces that remade experimental psychology several times in a single century. Social psychology is slow to respond to the zeitgeist and quick to retreat when the paradigm de jour threatens to ignore, set aside, or define away the problems that animate the discipline. As such, it serves as cognitive psychology's conscience, emphasizing the rich social context in which cognition evolved and occurs, keeping issues such as emotion and motivation on the table despite the daunting complexities they present, and insisting that cognition be thought of as a prelude to action and interaction rather than as an end unto itself.

Fiske and Taylor (1991) provide an excellent primer on social cognition; Higgins and Bargh (1987) and Fiske (1993) provide timely reviews of the field; Ostrom (1984) and Landman and Manis (1983) provide early analyses of the social cognition movement; and Devine, Hamilton, and Ostrom (1997) provide a useful retrospective. Extended treatments of most topics in social cognition can be found in Gilbert, Fiske, and Lindzey (1998).

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-- Daniel Gilbert


Allport, G. W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. New York: Addison Wesley.

Asch, S. E. (1952). Social Psychology. New York: Prentice Hall.

Devine, P. G., D. L. Hamilton, and T. M. Ostrom, Eds. (1997). Social Cognition: Impact on Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press.

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

Fiske, S. T., and S. E. Taylor. (1991). Social Cognition. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gilbert, D. T., S. T. Fiske, and G. Lindzey, Eds. (1998). The Handbook of Social Psychology. 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley.

Higgins, E. T., and J. A. Bargh. (1987). Social cognition and social perception. Annual Review of Psychology 38:369-425.

Landman, J., and M. Manis. (1983). Social cognition: Some historical and theoretical perspectives. In L. Berkowtiz, Ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 16. New York: Academic Press.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper.

Ostrom, T. M. (1984). The sovereignty of social cognition. In R. S. Wyer and T. K. Srull, Eds., Handbook of Social Cognition, vol. 1. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 1-38 .