History of Psychology – Social Cognition:the psychological blender

Social Cognition is the study of how people interpret and respond to social groups and situations, and it is a combination of social, cognitive, and developmental psychology blended together. It has been the dominant way of explaining social behaviour since the 1980’s, and is used today in even more scientific areas such as Cognitive Neuroscience.

Social Cognition is based on a cognitive theory called schema theory. schema is our mental framework that represents an object; for example, our schema of a banana would be that it is a fruit, yellow, and curved. It would also contain the knowledge that a banana is edible, and the process of opening and eating it, once we have learnt that. We then have social schemata for social situations we find ourselves in, as well as schemata for different individuals and groups of people we interact with. The schemata we make affect our social decisions, such as how we decide who is at fault in an argument, whether someone’s behaviour is due to them or their situation, and even to whether someone appears mentally ill.

However, because we socialise so much and get into so many different situations, our mind isn’t able to fully process all of the information about any person or social encounter- if it did, we wouldn’t be able to keep up with everything that goes on around us. Because of this, we unconsciously use heuristics (which is just a fancy word for shortcuts), in order to lessen the amount of work we have to do to think about each situation.

A problem with this is that because using shortcuts takes less thought and effort, the results of those shortcuts are not completely correct, and the brain makes mistakes when interpreting information. Those mistakes lead to us understanding things in the wrong way, e.g. seeing behaviour as caused by the wrong things. Mistakes are known as cognitive biases, and there are theorised to be literally hundreds of them- one example is the Dunning-Krueger effect mentioned in a previous post. Cognitive biases affect nearly every area of social logic, yet our world is pretty much built on them- if we did not have all of these biases, we would have much more difficulty socialising and understanding the world.

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