Home Introduction Cognitive Psychology Cognitive Perspective Social Perception Social Memory Social Categorization Social Judgment Language Automaticity Self Social Neuropsychology Personality Social Intelligence Development Sociology of Knowledge Social Construction Conclusion Lecture Illustrations Exam Information



Social cognition is the study of how we understand the social world -- how we perceive, remember, and think about ourselves, other people, the situations in which we encounter them, and the behavior that takes place in them.  As its name implies, social cognition stands at the intersection of cognitive and social psychology.  

About the Painting...

001Tarbell.jpg (111770 bytes)The logo for this course is In the Orchard, a painting by Edward Tarbell, one of the best painters in the group known as the "American Impressionists" (Mary Cassatt is in this group too, but she doesn't really count, as she lived and worked mostly in Paris, and actually hung out with the real French Impressionists!).  The painting depicts a group of people engaged in conversation (etc.): a man and a woman chatting, someone observing them, one with her back turned toward us -- and one (perhaps a little self-consciously) looking right at the observer.  That's what this course is about: People observing each other, and being observed, and how they acquire, represent, and use the knowledge they gain from these experiences to guide their social interactions.  


Social Cognition in Psychology and Cognitive Science

020James.jpg (67064
            bytes)Psychology is the science of mental life -- so said William James, in the first sentence of his Principles of Psychology (1890).  Psychologists study the cognitive, emotional, and motivational structures and processes that underlie human experience, thought, and action.



Psychology is based on the doctrine of mental causation.

Accordingly, psychology seeks to understand the mental structures and processes that underlie behavior:

Cognitive psychology, as a subdiscipline of psychology, is concerned with cognitive structures and processes.  The domain of cognition ranges very widely.

008CogHex.jpg (87965
            bytes)Cognitive psychology is an important component of cognitive science, which is the interdisciplinary, empirically based study of knowledge -- that is, the acquisition, representation, and use of knowledge by minds and brains, machines and societies.  Cognitive psychology joins philosophy, linguistics, computer science (artificial intelligence), neuroscience, and anthropology (and other social sciences) to make up what Howard Gardner (1985) has called the cognitive hexagon.   


Link to an overview of cognitive psychology, by J.F. Kihlstrom and L.H. Park.

Social psychology is often defined as the study of social influence -- "how the thought, feeling, and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other human beings" (G. Allport, 1954).  Indeed, a great deal of social-psychological research concerns the study of social influence, as in the classic studies of conformity and persuasion.  But this is too narrow a conception of the field, because it construes the individual merely as a passive receptacle of influences coming from the outside.  I prefer the definition expressed by the title of an early textbook in social psychology, written by three professors from Berkeley: "The Individual in Society" (Krech, Crutchfield, & Ballachey, 1948).

In formal terms, we can define social psychology as the study of the relation between an individual's internal mental structures and processes, and the structures and processes in the external, social world.  

Put another way, social psychology is the study of the relation between the individual's experience, thought, and action -- what the person is thinking, feeling, wanting, and doing -- and what is going on in his or her wider social environment -- what other people are thinking, feeling, wanting, doing, as well as the activities of larger social and cultural structures.


The Domain of Social Cognition

There are two primary aspects to social cognition:

Social Cognition in Psychology

This course emphasizes the second aspect (though it does not ignore the first).  Accordingly, it looks a lot like a cognitive psychology course -- except that the objects of cognition are social in nature.

Social perception entails the formation of a mental representation of the stimulus situation.  Information must be extracted from the stimulus, and then combined with information retrieved from memory.  This process is sometimes known as impression formation.

Social memory concerns the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of social knowledge.  Social memory is often studied in the form of person memory, or our memory for the characteristics and behaviors of other people.  However, the self can also be construed as a social knowledge structure stored in memory.

Social thought and reasoning includes the principles that govern how we make inferences, form judgments, and make choices in the social domain.

Language is a reflection of the mind, and a powerful tool for human thought, but it is also an important means of human communication.  Accordingly, we need to understand how social knowledge is represented, and shared, linguistically. 

Learning is the process by which knowledge about ourselves and others is acquired. 

Intelligence is usually defined in terms of individual differences in cognitive ability: some people are just smarter than others, some people are good at math but bad at language, some the reverse.  In some respects, the study of social cognition is really the study of social intelligence (Cantor & Kihlstrom, 1987, 1989; Kihlstrom & Cantor, 1989, 2000).  By social intelligence we don't mean "social IQ" -- the question of whether some people have more "social smarts" than others.  The social intelligence viewpoint construes social behavior as intelligent behavior -- not the product of reflex, conditioned response, and genetic programming, but rather a product of the person's mental representation of the social situation, and his reasoning about that situation.  Our mental representations of both social situations are constructed through our cognitive processes -- processes of perception, memory, thought, and language; they result from the application of declarative and procedural social knowledge -- our fund of facts and beliefs about the social world, and our repertoire of social skills and rules.  From this point of view, individual differences in social behavior are not the product of personality traits.  Rather, they reflect individual differences in social intelligence that individuals bring to bear on their social interactions.

Social-Cognitive Development concerns the acquisition of social-cognitive knowledge and skills, especially during childhood, and broaches the "nature-nurture" question: how much social cognition is innate, and how much is acquired through learning.

Social-Cognitive Neuropsychology and Neuroscience is now a major growth industry within social psychology.  Beginning in the 1970s, researchers in (nonsocial) cognition began to take interest in neurological syndromes, such as amnesia and visual agnosia, for the light they could shed on basic processes of perception and memory.  Similarly, social psychologists are turning to various syndromes, such as autism and prosopagnosia, for what they can tell us about the theory of mind and face recognition.  Together with brain-imaging techniques such as PET and fMRI, these kinds of studies shed light on the neural bases of social cognition.  

Social Constructivism plays an important role in cognitive social psychology.  The idea that cognitive psychology is concerned with how we know the world suggests that the world, present and past, exists independently of the knower,  And so it does.  Nevertheless, from a psychological point of view it is clear that perception involves more than extracting information from a stimulus, and memory involves more than encoding, storing, and retrieving memory traces.  In perception (in J.S. Bruner's apt phrase), we go "beyond the information given" by the stimulus to construct a mental representation of the environment based on inferences from world-knowledge.  And in memory, following F.C. Bartlett, we appear to reconstruct events -- again, based as much on inference than on retrieval.  Whether we are dealing with nonsocial or social objects and events, cognition isn't just about knowing reality; it's also about creating reality.


Social Cognition beyond Psychology

Psychology is a component discipline in interdisciplinary cognitive science, and each of the other component also has a contribution to make in understanding social cognition.  

Of particular interest is the development of cognitive perspectives in other social sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, and economics.

While all forms of cognitive psychology, including social cognition, are interested in how the individual comes to know reality through the application of cognitive processes, it quickly becomes clear that individuals can also create reality through those same processes.

Social and Nonsocial Cognition Compared

The study of social cognition can be organized like any course in cognitive psychology:

Social Perception;

Social Memory;

Social Categorization;

Social judgment;

the Language of Social Interaction;

Social Learning;

Social Intelligence;

Social-Cognitive Neuropsychology (and Neuroscience);

Social-Cognitive Development;

and the Social Construction of Reality.

As a starting point, the study of social cognition assumes that people are objects, just like any other objects, and that the principles governing nonsocial perception, memory, and other aspects of cognition -- principles derived from the analysis of perceptual illusions, for example, verbal learning, or analogical reasoning -- also apply in the social domain.  

This is a good first assumption, as it allows us to get the study of social cognition going, but we know that it isn't really true -- that there are important differences between the social and nonsocial worlds, and thus that there are important differences between social and nonsocial cognition.  


Quantitative Differences Between Social and Nonsocial Cognition

Some  of these differences between social and nonsocial cognition are quantitative in nature -- that is, differences in degree. 

For these reasons, the perceiver must, in Jerome Bruner's phrase, "go beyond the information given" by the stimulus, and fill in the gaps and resolve the ambiguities by making inferences about the stimulus given his knowledge, expectations, and beliefs.  This is the expressly cognitive contribution of the perceiver to perception.

AmesTwins.jpg (21548
              bytes)Consider, for example, the common problem of perceiving size and distance.  In the Ames Room illusion, the three men appear to vary radically in height.  But do they really?  Given the size-distance rule, which states that there is an inverse relation between the size of an object and its distance from the viewer, the man at the left may be very small, or he may be very far away.  


              (73368 bytes)But when we view an object in the context of the Ames room, the arrangement of floor, ceiling, walls, windows, and doors provide a context that tells us that he is as close to us as the man on the right.  Therefore, we conclude that the man on the left is exceptionally short, and the man on the right is exceptionally tall (the man in the middle seems "just right").  


            (95471 bytes)In the social case, we confront a similar problem.  If in the Ames Room we want to know where the people are, and how big they are, in this picture (drawn from the Thematic Apperception Test devised by H.A. Murray and his colleagues), we want to know what the person is doing.  Obviously, he's looking at a violin.  But is he?  Are his eyes open or closed?  Beyond that, we want to know that the boy is thinking, feeling, and desiring.  Is this the young Yehudi Menuhin, the musical prodigy, thinking about a Bach sonata before he goes on stage to play before the crowned heads of Europe?  Of is this a kid who is supposed to be practicing, but would rather be outside playing stickball with his friends?  Is this a boy who wants to play well, but just doesn't have the talent?  We don't know for sure.  The stimulus is ambiguous.  But perhaps if we had a little more context, we'd be able to figure it out.

9-11Photo.jpg (38186
            bytes)Here's another example: a famous (or, perhaps infamous) photograph taken on the Brooklyn Esplanade on September 11, 2001.  The photographer, Thomas Hoepker of Magnum Photos, encountered the group, took the picture, and went on to take other pictures elsewhere.  But because the photograph didn't "feel right", and was "ambiguous and confusing", he put it in his file of rejected images.  Only later was the photograph made public, principally in Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 by David Friend (2006).  Commenting further, Hoepker wrote that the group "seemed totally relaxed like any normal afternoon.  They were just chatting away.  It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it....  I can only speculate [but they] didn't seem to care".

Friend's book was published in 2006, and on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote (09/10/06) that "Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly into history.  This is a country that likes to move on, and fast.  The young people... aren't necessarily callous" -- implying, of course, that they were very callous indeed.  

David Plotz, looking at the same photograph, had another interpretation: in Slate (09/11/06), he wrote that "they have turned toward each other for solace and for debate".  He then called on the individuals pictured in the photograph to write to Slate and give their perspective on the picture.

One of the group, Walter Sipser (rightmost in the photo), responded that "[we were] a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened". 

Another, Chris Schiavo (the woman to the left of Spicer), wrote that her mother had been secretary to the architect of the Twin Towers, and that "it was genetically impossible for me to be unaffected by the event".

Still, without the testimony from the people themselves, it's not at all clear whose interpretation was right -- Rich's or Plotz's.

For more details, see "Time Capsule: Rediscovered 9/11 Picture Sparks Debate" by Daryl Lang, PDN Online, 09/15/06, from which these quotations are taken.  The article has links to Rich's and Plotz's columns, Sipser and Schiavo's responses, and Hoepker's response.

            (21755 bytes)Here's another one: the famous "Muskie Moment" during the New Hampshire presidential primary in February 1972.  Edmund S. Muskie, then a senator from Maine and a leading Democratic candidate for president, visited the offices of the (famously conservative) Manchester Union-Leader to complain about an extremely harsh editorial the newspaper had published about his wife.  This photo was taken during Muskie's press conference on the steps of the newspaper offices.  David Broder, writing in the Washington Post, described Muskie as in tears.  Muskie's staff responded that it was just snow melting on his face.  But the "tears" description stuck, implying weakness, and Muskie's prospects for the presidency were dashed.

            (34268 bytes)And here's another 'Muskie Moment", from the New Hampshire presidential primary of January 2008.  Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), then in a neck-and-neck battle with Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) was asked at an event in a diner (New Hampshire is famous for these) how she kept up the rigors of a campaign.  Clinton's eyes welled up, her voice broke, and she seemed on the verge of tears as she described how much she owed the country, and how important the job was to her.  Commenting on Fox News, William Kristol, the neoconservative pundit, concluded that Clinton had faked her tears; while Brit Hume thought they were genuine.  We'll never know, of course.  In the event, Clinton ended up winning the primary, which also was distinguished by a failure of pre-election polling to predict her win: most of the polls had Obama ahead; it was not known whether respondents failed to tell the truth about favoring Obama, or whether the episode led to a last-minute surge in Clinton's support.

Here's another example.  This photograph by Spencer Platt is titled "Beirut Residents continue to Flock to Southern Neighborhoods" (as exhibited in "War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath" at the Brooklyn Museum, 2013-2014..  As explained by Ken Johnson, art critic  for the New York Times ("Poignant Images, with Posterity the Ultimate Winner", 11/15/2013):

In a photograph shot by Spence Platt in Lebanon in 2006, the spectacle of five attractive, fashionably dressed young people in a glossy red convertible occupies the foreground.  By surrealistic contrast, the immediate background is filled with the smoking wreckage of bombed buildings, where a few pedestrians pass by....  [T]he impression you get is of obnoxious rich kids out for a sensation-seeking drive.  But the truth of Mr. Platt's picture, which won the 2006 World Press Photo of the Year award, was not what it seemed.  In response to widespread criticism, the car's driver and passengers protested to news reporters that they were not disaster tourists but residents of the neighborhood returning to recover their belongings.

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the importance of context to social cognition is the famous photograph of the "Vancouver Riot Kiss", taken by Rich Lam during a riot that broke out in Vancouver, British Columbia, in June 2011, after the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup hockey finals.  Stripped of its context, the photo appears to show a couple engaged in foreplay (the inset is a similar still from From Here to Eternity, a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr).  But the original photograph shows that "The Kiss" actually took place against a background of a street protest, with a police officer wielding a truncheon in the foreground.  But that only makes the photo more ambiguous.  What's going on here? Is this a piece of performance art?  An ironic act of social protest?  A Photoshopped hoax?  Is he taking advantage of her?  It turned out that the couple involved, Scott Jones and Alexandra Thomas, were caught up in the mayhem.  She was hurt in the melee, and he was trying to comfort her (last I knew, they were still together, and had hung the photo over their bed). 

Arguably, the social stimulus is more ambiguous, and context more important, than the nonsocial stimulus.  But these differences are quantitative, not qualitative in nature.


Qualitative Differences Between Social and Nonsocial Cognition

Other differences between social and nonsocial cognition may be qualitative in nature.

For example, the modularity of social cognition.  Psychologists used to assume that thought followed the same rules, regardless of the topic -- and that, regardless of the topic, thinking was always performed by the same set of brain structures.  That's where the idea of the "association cortex" comes from: there were certain areas of the brain devoted to sensory and motor functions, and then the rest was devoted to the formation of associations.  Accordingly, it might be the case that people use the same mental apparatus, and underlying brain processes, to engage in social and nonsocial cognition.  However, modern doctrine in neuroscience emphasizes modularity -- that different brain systems perform different mental functions.  If so, it may well be that social-cognitive processes are handled by different mental modules, and

023PhrenologicalHead.jpg (87663 bytes)The idea of modularity goes back to the 19th-century phrenologists, who claimed to be able to diagnose mental capacities, and deficiencies, from the bumps on the surface of the skull.  Interestingly, the "mental faculties" listed by the phrenologists included many functions that are expressly social in nature.  Even if the neuroscientific doctrine of modularity is correct, we now know that the phrenologists got every detail wrong, in terms of their localization of mental faculties.  Still, it might prove to be the case that the social and nonsocial aspects of cognition are mediated by distinctly different brain structures.

 As it happens, a number of specifically "social" cognitive modules have been proposed.  We'll talk about some of these at greater length later, in the lectures on Social-Cognitive Neuroscience, but here's just a sample.

Social cognition may or not involve different modules than nonsocial cognition, but there is one difference between the two that is distinct, and distinctly qualitative: social cognition blurs the distinction between subject and object.  In nonsocial cognition, there is the subject -- the one who does the perceiving, or remembering, or thinking; and there is the object -- the thing that is perceived, remembered, or thought.  But when we think of ourselves, we are simultaneously knower and the object of knowledge.  Some social-cognition theorists claim that cognition of the self is different from cognition of other people, in that self-knowledge tends to follow different rules.  Maybe.  But even if the rules of self-cognition are the same as the rules of other-cognition, the fact that the same person is both subject and object is unique in the cognitive domain.

The fact that the self can be the object of social cognition adds a new dimension to the question of differences between social and nonsocial cognition.  The basic problem can be stated thus:

Is the person an object, just like any other?

Now we have to pose a further question:

Is the self a person, just like any other?

Another clearly qualitative difference between social and nonsocial cognition has to do with the object of the enterprise.  In social cognition, the stimulus situation is by definition composed of people, and people are sentient, intelligent beings, each with his or her own set of beliefs, feelings, and desires.  In the social case, but not the nonsocial case, the object of cognition knows that it is the object of cognition; and that object has goals of his or her own, one of which may be to shape the perceiver's mental representations of him or her.  

Put another way: In social cognition, we are trying to gain knowledge of the mental attributes of other people -- a process generally known as person perception or impression formation.  But in person perception the "object of regard" is not passive, but rather conscious of being perceived, dynamically active, intelligently trying to shape the perceiver's percepts -- a process known as impression management (the term favored by the social psychologist E.E. Jones) or strategic self-presentation (the term favored by the sociologist E. Goffman).  

Nowhere in nonsocial cognition is there any dynamic, dialectical interplay between impression formation on the part of an intelligent, conscious perceiver, and impression management on the part of an intelligent, conscious perceptual object.

025InfiniteSeries.jpg (104255 bytes)Of course, the observer, being a sentient, intelligent being him- or herself, knows this, and so is constantly trying to "read between the lines" with respect to the object.  When we perceive other people, we assume that they are trying to shape our perceptions, and so we go to extra lengths to try to figure out what they are really like.

The object knows this, of course, and therefore tries to manage the perceiver's impressions relatively subtly.

The perceiver knows this, too, and the object knows that the perceiver knows it.

The result can be a kind of indefinite series, similar to an infinite regress (except in this case it might be better termed an infinite progress).  We simply don't find this problem in nonsocial cognition, for the simple reason that in the nonsocial domain the object of perception is not an intelligent, sentient being like the observer.

Iterated Knowing in Espionage

Malcolm Gladwell, writing on "Operation Mincemeat" during World War II, in which the British tried to fool the Germans into thinking that the Allies were planing to invade Europe through Sardinia and Greece rather than Sicily and Italy:

This is the second, and more serious, of the problems that surround the products of espionage [the first problem being the requirement of secrecy]. It is not just that secrets themselves are hard to fact-check; it's that their interpretation is inherently ambiguous. Any party to an intelligence transaction is trapped in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called an "expression game." I'm trying to fool you. You realize that I'm trying to fool you, and I -- realizing that -- try to fool you into thinking that I don't realize that you have realized that I am trying to fool you. Goffman argues that at each turn in the game the parties seek out more and more specific and reliable cues to the other's intentions. But that search for specificity and reliability only makes the problem worse. As Goffman writes in his 1969 book Strategic Interaction:

The more the observer relies on seeking out foolproof cues, the more vulnerable he should appreciate he has become to the exploitation of his efforts. For, after all, the most reliance-inspiring conduct on the subject's part is exactly the conduct that it would be most advantageous for him to fake if he wanted to hoodwink the observer. The very fact that the observer finds himself looking to a particular bit of evidence as an incorruptible check on what is or might be corrupted is the very reason why he should be suspicious of this evidence; for the best evidence for him is also the best evidence for the subject to tamper with.

Macintyre argues that one of the reasons the Germans fell so hard for the Mincemeat ruse is that they really had to struggle to gain access to the documents. They tried -- and failed -- to find a Spanish accomplice when the briefcase was still in Huelva. A week passed, and the Germans grew more and more anxious. The briefcase was transferred to the Spanish Admiralty, in Madrid, where the Germans redoubled their efforts. Their assumption, Macintyre says, was that if Martin was a plant the British would have made their task much easier. But Goffman's argument reminds us that the opposite is equally plausible. Knowing that a struggle would be a sign of authenticity, the Germans could just as easily have expected the British to provide one.

RomanoffJuliet.jpg (14804 bytes)The absurdity of such expression games has been wittily explored in the spy novels of Robert Littell and, with particular brio, in Peter Ustinov's 1956 play, Romanoff and Juliet. In the latter, a crafty general is the head of a tiny European country being squabbled over by the United States and the Soviet Union, and is determined to play one off against the other. He tells the U.S. Ambassador that the Soviets have broken the Americans' secret code.

"We know they know our code," the Ambassador, Moulsworth, replies, beaming. "We only give them things we want them to know."

The general pauses, during which, the play's stage directions say, "he tries to make head or tail of this intelligence." Then he crosses the street to the Russian Embassy, where he tells the Soviet Ambassador, Romanoff, "They know you know their code."

Romanoff is unfazed: "We have known for some time that they knew we knew their code. We have acted accordingly -- by pretending to be duped."

The general returns to the American Embassy and confronts Moulsworth: "They know you know they know you know."

Moulsworth (genuinely alarmed): "What? Are you sure?"

The genius of that parody is the final line, because spymasters have always prided themselves on knowing where they are on the "I-know-they-know-I-know-they-know" regress.

From "Pandora's Briefcase" by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewing Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre, New Yorker, 05/10/2010.  Link to full article.

For a philosophical examination of the problem of "iterated knowing", see J. Cargile, "A note on 'iterated knowings'",Analysis, 1970, 30, 151-155.


"Personals" Ads  as Models of Social Cognition

The dynamic interplay -- the dialectical relationship -- between impression formation (on the part of the subject, the perceiver) and impression management (on the part of the object of perceeption) is vividly illustrated by the "personals" ads published by many newspapers and magazines (my own favorites come from the New York Review of Books), in which two people -- the advertiser and the reader -- interact with each other through the medium of newsprint. 

032pers.jpg (45054 bytes)Some personals ads are relatively unambiguous.




033oers.jpg (80089 bytes)Others, however, are a lot less transparent, containing hidden meanings that must be interpreted.



Here are some more examples from the New York Review of Books.  Think of them as exercises in person perception, not unlike the TAT card of the boy with the violin.  What are these people like?  How did they get that way?  What do they want?  Do you want to spend any time with them?  What for?

                    (122202 bytes) 035oers.jpg
                    (134676 bytes) 036pers.jpg
                    (62951 bytes) 037pers.jpg
                    (114978 bytes)

For a collection of similar ads from the London Review of Books, the NYRB's sister publication, see the following books, both edited by David Rose:
  • They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books (2006).
  • Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland: More Personal Ads from the London Review of Books (2010).

See also:

  • Shapely Ankle Preferr'd: A History of the Lonely Hears Ad by Francesca Beauman; and Extravagant Expectations by Paul Hollander.
  • Advertising for Love, a blog maintained by Pam Epstein.


This page last modified 08/27/2015.