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Social cognition is the way we perceive, interpret and judge the behaviours of others in social situations. (Leyens and Dardenne, 1996) Our understanding of social cognition was developed by Helder and Kelly in 1955. Helder believed that people want to understand and control their social environment, and they do this by acting as “naive psychologists” and trying to work out people’s behaviour. Kelly believed that people acted like scientists by trying to predict social situations and he proposed that we use ways of classifying people and objects.
To understand social cognition, we need to understand how we get information about people, and how we apply it. This can be done using Schema Theory, Heuristics, and Social Categorisation. Schema Theory A schema is defined as a cognitive structure containing knowledge about a concept (Fiske and Taylor,1992), in other words it is a sort of mental plan for a social situation, that decides what we pay attention to and what we ignore. There are four different types of schemata: self, person, role and script.
An example of a self schemata is what you expect you would do in a social situation. An example of a person schemata is what you expect your best friend to do during a day out An example of a role schemata would be what you expect a teacher to do during a lesson. An example of a script schemata would be what you expect to happen if you go to a restaurant. Schemas and scripts help us socially as they simplify social situations and new information. They help us to function in society as they help us understand and predict how people will behave.
Fiske and Taylor proposed that because we have so much stored knowledge about social situations, when we have to remember and use that knowledge, we act as “cognitive misers”- we take short-cuts so we can process the information better. Heuristics Heuristics are defined as short-cuts and strategies used to modify and reduce complex information (Traversky and Kahneman,1974) , or a way to process social information more quickly. Heuristics help us apply the knowledge we gain from schemata. One type of heuristic is Representativeness.
We use it to compare new people against schemata we already know about, e. g. deciding a new person is part of a group because they are similar to other people in the group. This is often an accurate short-cut, but sometimes will lead to the wrong conclusion. Another type of heuristic is Availability. This is the characteristic most associated with a certain group of people (usually due to media portrayal) e. g. politicians and dishonesty. Social Categorisation Another way of making information easier to process is by putting it into groups.
A Category is a group of people who are perceived to have things in common e. g. males – females, or teenagers – the elderly. Even if there is very little information, or if it has been proved wrong in the past, we still categorise. Every category is associated with a Prototype- an example of what we expect people in the category to be like. Categorisation is useful because it allows us to process a lot of information quickly and easily, however generalising people into a category always leads to some distortion due to missing information.
This results in bias and errors. One error is the Confirmatory Bias. This is when we actively look for information that matches what we expect, and ignore information that doesn’t match. The other is the False Consensus Bias. This is when we believe that when we know about our own behaviour, then we know about other people’s. Social Identity Theory While schemata and heuristics are based solely on how people as individuals understand social situations, social categorisation and social identity theory are used to understand how people socialise as part of groups.
The social identity theory is defined as how membership of social groups affects self-concept and determines reactions to people and events (Hayes, 1993) “In-group” and “Out-group” We group people by many different characteristics, including age, gender and nationality. The group we belong to is called the “in-group” and people not in the “in-group” are the “out-group”. The errors in categorisation mentioned earlier biases our perception of the “out-group” and our behaviour towards both the “in” and “out” groups.
Some examples of this are the Ingroup Favouritism Effect and the Negative Outgroup Bias- both refer to treating the “in-group” more favourably than the “out-group” . These happen because we see the differences between the “in” and “out” groups as bigger than they actually are. We process more information about the “in-group” than the “out-group”, which leads to the Outgroup Homogeneity (sameness) Effect- we see members of the “out-group” as more similar than they actually are. Social Comparison and Self-Esteem
Another part of social identity theory is social comparison. We compare ourselves with other individuals and groups, to see their strengths and weaknesses. When we compare people and groups we expect ourselves or our group to be preferred, and the results affect our self-esteem (a major part of social identity theory) Self-Esteem is the value we place on ourselves. It is partly worked out by how we compare to other people and other groups. The two most influential groups are the “peer-group” and the “reference group”.
The “peer-group” are the people we perceive as being like us, and the “reference group” are the people who set the standards we try to follow. To increase their self-esteem people need to have a positive social identity. We do this by making comparisons between ourselves and our “peer-group” and “reference group” which are likely to result in our group being better, and avoiding comparisons which are likely to have a negative result. However, we naturally see the “in-group” in a more positive light due to being biased. Social Representation
Another approach to looking at how people see the world is Social Representation. According to this theory, we do not try to find an accurate explanation of the world, instead we act as “cognitive misers” and use a representation of the world. A social representation can be defined as a shared belief held by a group of people to explain their social experience (Moscovici, 1981) An example of this would be if a group of people heard a car accident but did not see it . When they go to the scene of the accident, they see two damaged cars but no-one has been injured.
As none of them know what has happened, they all discuss what they think happened, based on their prior knowledge. Although everyone has their own ideas, discussing them will lead to the group forming a shared conclusion about what they think happened. This is a social representation of the event. Social representation also focuses on groups as well as individuals, and many representations are explanations shared between members of an “in-group”. The same event can often be explained in completely different ways by different groups e. g. opposing political parties.