Social Cognition and Perception

Social cognition is the study of the ways people think about themselves and the social world, including how they select, interpret, remember, and use social information. Two types of social cognition are controlled thinking and automatic thinking. Controlled thinking is thinking that is conscious, intentional, voluntary, and effortful, such as when you are weighing the pros and cons of an issue to make an important decision or are learning a skill for the first time. Automatic thinking is just as it sounds—thinking that happens without conscious thought—and it is this type of thinking that you will concentrate on this week.

Schemas, one example of automatic thinking, are mental structures that organize our knowledge about the social world and influence what we notice, think about, and remember. Schemas are important for making sense of the world. They help us to create continuity to relate new experiences to old ones and are especially helpful when information is ambiguous. We also engage in a second type of automatic thinking when we use mental strategies and shortcuts, or heuristics, that make judgments and decisions easier, allowing us to proceed with our lives and not turn every decision into a major hurdle. Examples of heuristics include availability, representativeness, and counterfactual thinking. Schemas and heuristics significantly influence our impressions of a social situation and facilitate our social cognition processes. Schemas are highly determined by the cultures in which we grow up, and they strongly influence what we notice and remember about the world.

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Think back to this week’s Introduction. When you meet someone new, you no doubt use many different kinds of information available to you and process that information in a way that allows you to make sense of their behavior. You may see if a person fits into some group with which you are familiar and then try to make sense of the person’s behavior in light of others in that group. In addition, you probably have your own goals for relating to the person, which also influence your impression. If your goal is to form a long-term relationship with the person, you will process the information differently than you would the information from a store clerk with whom you don’t plan to have any kind of relationship.

The information you focus on, the strategies you use in processing the information, and the resulting impressions and preconceived ideas you form about a person make up what is called person perception. Since social psychology is all about relating to others, be it an individual or a group of people, person perception is an important topic.

In addition to understanding how people form impressions of others, it is helpful to dig deeper into why people might behave as they do. In doing so, you can more easily predict how people will behave and then control the environment accordingly. By having a better understanding of why people behave as they do, you also can understand your own emotions and feelings toward the situation, which impact your own future behavior. The simple question of “What causes what?” is essential in understanding those around you and your social environment. And, since it would be cumbersome to constantly ask the question “What causes what?”—people tend to ask and answer it automatically. The social psychology term for this concept is causal attribution. There are many related social psychological theories that you can use to understand why people behave as they do. This understanding in turn, helps you to better understand how people relate to one another and to the environment, predict behavior, and partly control social situations—all major goals of social psychology.

To prepare:

Review Chapters 3 and 4 of the course text, Social Psychology.
Review the article, “Person Perception” found in this week’s Learning Resources.
Watch the video on selective attention.
The Assignment (2–4 pages):

Select one person in each category below:
A person you do not know and who you probably will not see again (clerk at the grocery store, etc.)
A person you have known for some time and for whom you can remember your first impressions (acquaintance, friend, spouse, etc.)
Briefly describe each person including his or her specific behavior at your first meeting, the context of your interaction with each person, and your first impression of each person.
Explain whether you made external (situational) and/or internal (dispositional) attributions for each person’s behavior during that first meeting.
Did you engage in automatic thinking or controlled thinking in forming your first impression of each person? Explain. What, if any, schemas or heuristics did you use?
With which culture(s) do you identify? According to the information in this week’s readings, how does your culture influence your impressions of others? For example, (a) how does your culture influence the content of a particular schema (Aronson, Wilson, & Sommers, 2019, p.

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