In This Article Social Cognition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks

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Psychology Social Cognition
Gordon B. Moskowitz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0099


Social cognition is concerned with the study of the thought processes, both implicit and explicit, through which humans attain understanding of self, others, and their environment. Its basic assumption is that the experience of the world is constructed by the perceiver, and that the mental representations one uses for assimilating and making sense of information develop over a lifetime of experience to provide a framework for organizing incoming information, creating expectations and predictions regarding future events, and (re) processing information stored in memory. Such cognition serves (1) as the foundation for social interaction, or in the service of producing appropriate action, and (2) to allow the individual to maintain a coherent understanding/narrative of the world despite an unending stream of stimuli, new experiences, and evidence that might contradict already existing beliefs. Social cognition’s research focus spans from higher-order cognition such as reasoning, ruminating, and deliberation among options to low-order processes such as perception, attention, categorization, memory (encoding, retrieval, reconsolidation), and spreading activation among concepts in networks of associated mental representations. Typical questions focus on how affect and motivation interact with the cognitive system in shaping the type of processing engaged in and the output of that processing, thus determining what we think and feel (and ultimately how we act). In this regard there is an emphasis on the data present in the external world (e.g., whether someone is displaying anger) as an influence on behavior, and on the inherent ability of the features embedded in stimuli to capture attention and trigger specific meaning (such as what combination of facial muscles aligned in a specific way convey anger to people from all cultures). However, perhaps more importantly there is an emphasis on the subjective nature of construing such data (whether we are prepared to perceive the person as displaying anger) and on how the bias to perception and judgment that is introduced from our affect, motives, emotions, moods, values, mind-sets, and prior learning impacts what we believe we see and how the current situation is interpreted. Thus, while what one thinks about a person and what goals one adopts when interacting with that person are influenced by how one categorizes that person (which is based on attention and memory retrieval), it is also true that attention, memory, and categorization are determined by goals, context, attitudes, values, etc. Recent research has introduced concerns with dissociating the implicit from the explicit components of social cognition, as well as understanding the neural basis for cognition relating to the social world, and how this may differ from non-social cognition.

General Overviews

As the cognitive revolution took hold throughout psychology in the middle to latter part of the 20th century, researchers in social psychology began to import methodologies from cognitive psychology to the study of social phenomena, giving birth to what is now known as social cognition. However, to some degree the field of social psychology was always centered around social cognition. Its founding figures—Kurt Lewin (studying motivation), Leon Festinger (examining both social comparison and cognitive dissonance), Carl Hovland (researching attitude change), Gordon Allport (analyzing the nature of prejudice and stereotyping), Solomon Asch (investigating both conformity and impression formation), Muzafer Sherif (illustrating the informational value of social influence), Henri Tajfel (developing a theory of social identity), and Fritz Heider (describing processes of causal analysis)—all had a distinctly cognitive orientation, with the perceiver’s construal of the social situation and thoughts about social stimuli the focal point of their respective analyses. As Zajonc 1980 makes clear, the differences that the methodological innovations of cognitive psychology during the 1970s delivered were thus not major changes in the content being studied, but in the degree to which the processes going on within the mind of a given perceiver could be understood. This also opened the possibility for a greater appreciation of the vast unconscious influences that shape human thought and behavior and the study of the interplay between explicit and implicit cognition. What the reviews listed here highlight is that social cognition is not merely a methodological approach where methods devised elsewhere are applied to social stimuli, but a sovereign discipline in which social interaction and intraindividual cognitive processes are seen as interdependent, influencing one another. It serves as a hub discipline for the social sciences that links the neural basis of human responding to the cognitive processing of a given individual, to the ways in which individuals interact, to the ways in which a social group contributes to one’s identity, and to the understanding of intergroup behavior and prejudice. Srull and Wyer 1989 is a masterwork that summarizes and synthesizes the first fifteen years of research on person memory. Ostrom 1984 is the first chapter of the influential Handbook of Social Cognition, and it had a significant impact on research in social cognition. Wegner and Bargh 1998 integrates motivational pursuits with processing that is described as “automatic” to forge the way for the next decade of research in which goals are shown to direct implicit cognition as part of self-regulation, with goals themselves being seen as represented and capable of being triggered outside of awareness.

  • Ostrom, T. M. 1984. The sovereignty of social cognition. In Handbook of social cognition. Vol. 1. Edited by R. S. Wyer Jr. and T. K. Srull, 1–38. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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    As the field of social cognition was taking shape, this chapter championing the importance of social cognition, from one of its early leaders, ushered an entire generation of scholars into this area of research, altering the field of social psychology permanently.

  • Srull, T. K., and R. S. Wyer Jr. 1989. Person memory and judgment. Psychological Review 96:58–83.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.96.1.58E-mail Citation »

    Establishes a set of postulates that not only explain the research findings of the prior fifteen years, but absorb and integrate much of the research in social psychology and cognitive psychology. The postulates provide succinct summaries of the rules that govern social cognition, and the review provides a comprehensive description of the methodologies in the “person memory” tradition, where implicit cognition is revealed by examining recall for stimulus information.

  • Wegner, D. M., and J. A. Bargh. 1998. Control and automaticity in social life. In The handbook of social psychology. 4th ed. Vol. 1. Edited by D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, and G. Lindzey, 446–496. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

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    Two major themes of social cognition research are the implicit nature of social processing and the motivated nature of processing (the fact that cognition and behavior are controlled, under the guidance of needs, motives, and goals). This review comprehensively describes the implicit yet controlled nature of social thought while also discussing the implications for free will.

  • Zajonc, R. B. 1980. Cognition and social cognition: A historical perspective. In Retrospections on social psychology. Edited by L. Festinger, 180–204. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    An important historical piece that connects social cognition research to the broader field of social psychology and reviews the origins of the various research paradigms.

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