Template:Psychology sidebar Social cognition is the encoding, storage, retrieval, and processing, in the brain, of information relating to conspecifics, or members of the same species. At one time social cognition referred specifically to an approach to social psychology in which these processes were studied according to the methods of cognitive psychology and information processing theory. However the term has come to be more widely used across psychology and cognitive neuroscience. For example, it is used to refer to various social abilities disrupted in autism and other disorders. In cognitive neuroscience the biological basis of social cognition is investigated. Developmental psychologists study the development of social cognition abilities.
Social cognition came to prominence with the rise of cognitive psychology in the late 1960s and early 1970s and is now the dominant model and approach in mainstream social psychology. Common to social cognition theories is the idea that information is represented in the brain as "cognitive elements"—such as schemas, attributions, or stereotypes—and a focus on how these cognitive elements are processed. Social cognition therefore applies and extends many themes, theories and paradigms from cognitive psychology, for example in reasoning (representativeness heuristic, base rate fallacy and confirmation bias), attention (automaticity and priming) and memory (schemas, primacy and recency). It is very likely that social psychology was always a lot more cognitive than mainstream psychology to begin with, as it traditionally discussed internal mental states such as beliefs and desires when mainstream psychology was dominated by behaviourism and rejected them as illusory.
A notable theory of social cognition is social schema theory, although this is not the basis of all studies of social cognition (for example, see attribution theory). It has been suggested that other disciplines in social psychology such as social identity theory and social representations may be seeking to explain largely the same phenomena as social cognition and that these different disciplines might be merged into a "coherent integrated whole". A parallel paradigm has arisen in the study of action, termed motor cognition. Motor cognition is concerned with understanding the representation of action and the associated process.
Social schema theory builds on and uses terminology from schema theory in cognitive psychology which describes how ideas, or "concepts" from the world around us are represented in the brain, and how they are categorized. According to this view, when we see or think of a concept, a mental representation or schema is "activated", bringing to mind other information which is linked to the original concept by association. This activation often happens unconsciously. As a result of activating such schemas, judgements are formed which go beyond the information actually available, since many of the associations the schema evokes extend outside the given information. This may influence thinking and social behavior regardless of whether these judgements are accurate or not. For example, if an individual is introduced as a teacher, a "teacher schema" may be activated and we might associate this person with wisdom or authority, or past experiences of teachers that we have remembered and are important to us.
When a schema is more accessible this means it can more quickly be activated and used in a particular situation. Two cognitive processes that increase the accessibility of schemas are salience and priming. Salience is the degree to which a particular social object stands out relative to other social objects in a situation. The higher the salience of an object the more likely that schemas for that object will be made accessible. For example, if there is one female in a group of seven males, female gender schemas may be more accessible and influence the group's thinking and behavior toward the female group member. Priming refers to any experience immediately prior to a situation that causes a schema to be more accessible. For example watching a scary movie at a theatre late at night might increase the accessibility of frightening schemas that affect a person's perception of shadows and background noises as potential threats. Priming happens because of the functions of the reticular cortex.
Social cognition researchers are also interested in how new information is integrated into pre-established schemas, especially when that information is contrary with those pre-established schemas. Pre-established schemas tend to guide attention to new information. People selectively attend to information that is consistent with the schema and ignore information that is inconsistent. This is referred to as a confirmation bias. Sometimes inconsistent information is sub-categorized and stored away as a special case, leaving the original schema intact without any alterations. This is referred to as subtyping.
Social cognition researchers are also interested in studying the regulation of activated schemas. It is believed that the situational activation of schemas is automatic, meaning that it is outside the control of the individual. In many situations however, the schematic information that has been activated may be in conflict with the social norms of the situation, in which case an individual is motivated to inhibit the influence of the schematic information on their thinking and social behavior. Whether a person will successfully regulate the application of the activated schemas is dependent on individual differences in self-regulatory ability and the presence of situational impairments to executive control. High self-regulatory ability and the lack of situational impairments on executive functioning increase the likelihood that individuals will successfully inhibit the influence of automatically activated schemas on their thinking and social behavior. However, when people stop suppressing the influence of the unwanted thoughts, a rebound effect can occur where the thought becomes hyper-accessible.
Social cognitive neuroscience
Early interest in the relationship between brain function and social cognition includes the case of Phineas Gage, whose behavior was reported to have changed after an accident damaged one or both of his frontal lobes. More recent neuropsychological studies have shown that brain injuries disrupt social cognitive processes. For example, damage to the frontal lobes can affect emotional responses to social stimuli, performance on social reasoning tasks and performance on Theory of Mind tasks. In the temporal lobe, damage to the fusiform gyrus can lead to the inability to recognize faces.
People with psychological disorders such as autism, Williams syndrome, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Fragile X and Turner's syndrome show differences in social behavior compared to their unaffected peers. Parents with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) show disturbances in at least one aspect of social cognition: namely, joint attention with their young children only after a laboratory-induced relational stressor as compared to healthy parents without PTSD . However, whether social cognition is underpinned by domain specific neural mechanisms is still an open issue.
There is now an expanding research field examining how such conditions may bias cognitive processes involved in social interaction, or conversely, how such biases may lead to the symptoms associated with the condition.
The development of social cognitive processes in infants and children has also been researched extensively (see Developmental Psychology). For example, it has been suggested that some aspects of psychological processes that promote social behavior (such as face recognition) may be innate. Consistent with this, very young babies recognize and selectively respond to social stimuli such as the voice, face and scent of their mother.
- Situated cognition
- Distributed cognition
- Cognitive dissonance
- Face perception
- Social psychology
- Online participation
- Joint attention
- Behavioral sink
- Observational learning
- Social cognitive theory, Social cognitive theory of morality
- Social intelligence
- Social neuroscience
- Biological motion
- Neurodevelopmental Framework
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