This chapter has focused primarily on one central topic in social psychology: namely, the ways that we learn about and judge other people—our social cognition. The ability to make accurate judgments about our social situation is critical. For example, if we cannot understand others and predict how they will respond to us, our social interactions will be difficult indeed.
We have seen that social cognition is efficient, frequently operating quickly and even out of our awareness, and generally accurate. However, although we are often quite accurate at evaluating other people and in creating effective social interactions, we are not perfect. The errors we make frequently occur because of our reliance on our mental knowledge (our schemas and attitudes) as well our tendency to take shortcuts through the use of cognitive heuristics. We use schemas and heuristics as energy savers, because we are often overwhelmed by the amount of information we need to process.
Social knowledge is gained as the result of learning—the relatively permanent change in thoughts, feelings, or behavior that occurs as a result of experience. Some learning is based on the principles of operant learning—experiences that are followed by positive emotions (rewards) are more likely to be repeated, whereas experiences that are followed by negative emotions (punishments) are less likely to be repeated. Associational learning occurs when an object or event comes to be associated with a response, such as a behavior or a positive or negative emotion. We also learn through observational learning by modeling the behavior of others.
Accommodation occurs when our existing schemas or attitudes change on the basis of new information. Assimilation, on the other hand, occurs when our existing knowledge influences new information in a way that makes the conflicting information fit with our existing knowledge. Assimilation is often more powerful than is accommodation.
Much of our social cognition is automatic, meaning that it occurs quickly and without taking much effort. In other cases, when we have the time and motivation, we think about things more deliberately and carefully. In this case, we are engaging in more thoughtful, controlled cognition.
We pay particular attention to stimuli that are salient—things that are unique, negative, colorful, bright, and moving. In many cases, we base our judgments on information that seems to represent, or match, what we expect will happen. When we do so, we are using the representativeness heuristic.
Cognitive accessibility refers to the extent to which knowledge is activated in memory and thus likely to be used to guide our reactions to others. The tendency to overuse accessible social constructs can lead to errors in judgment, such as the availability heuristic and the false consensus bias. Counterfactual thinking about what might have happened and the tendency to anchor on an initial construct and not adjust sufficiently from it are also influenced by cognitive accessibility. We also have a tendency to be overconfident in our judgments of ourselves, others, and the future. We should also be mindful that we tend to have blind spots about our own biases and how much they affect our social cognition. Perhaps the best hope, then, for us going forward is that we become better at recognizing and challenging biases in each other’s thinking.
Ultimately, perhaps we can use our understanding of social cognition to understand more fully how we think accurately—but also sometimes inaccurately—about ourselves and others.