We are all influenced by the study of social cognition because we are all conscious human beings living in the constructs of some form of society and have a social relationship to the world around us. This is an overview of social cognition, a topic that stems from social psychology.
What is it?
Social cognition is a term used in psychology to explain the ways individuals think about themselves and their relationship to the social world, including their selection, interpretation, and use of social information. This includes ones self-awareness and self-esteem as it is influenced by the people and things around them. Social cognition is about people “trying to form accurate impressions of the world.”  Sometimes people form convoluted and irrational depictions of the world and this has clearly been seen in human kind’s history with bigotry, racism, sexism, and hate. As a society we are constantly trying to perfect our social cognition so we may teach children to view the world with fairness and logic. To examine social cognition a little closer we must first acknowledge two different kinds of thinking that humans have.
We are always thinking. From the moment our brains form in the womb all the way until death, and in some rare cases– brain death, our brains are firing neurons which give us thoughts. When thinking is effortless, nonconscious, and involuntary it is called automatic thinking.  To observe yourself automatically thinking, sit quietly in a room for about 15 minutes with no stimulation whatsoever and you will begin to notice a number of thoughts emerging from your subconscious. These thoughts might be simple responses influenced by your current situation of boredom such as “I could really go for a hamburger right now” or “I’d rather be playing World of Warcraft; this is boring”. Whenever you are doing anything, such as driving a car, writing a paper, or watching a movie, your brain is automatically analyzing aspects of the environment and drawing conclusions based on your past experiences and knowledge. Automatic thinking is an incredibly important part of being human. Without the ability to automatically form thoughts we would always be in a state of intense concentration. As a result we would be much more like a machine, which can perform specific tasks well but has no extraneous thoughts, emotions, or awareness of the world around them. Thanks to automatic thinking, we can immediately form opinions about the people we meet, the books we read, etc. This form of thinking also protects us from danger by giving us reflexes, such as the ability to notice a falling object and catch it.  If we were always forced to concentrate on everything just to exist, life would be a very miserable thing.
Imagine you are taking a mathematics exam at school which will determine whether you pass or fail the class. Chances are you will be trying your hardest to silence any automatic thoughts and devote all your cognitive energy toward solving the problems on the test. You are using controlled thinking, which involves concentration and careful, deliberate logic.  This kind of thought process is important when making life decisions, trying to make a good impression, wanting to do a good job on something, etc. Automatic thinking helps with a lot of our everyday situations but it is also important to question our automatic thoughts in an effort to perfect our social cognition. For example, you see someone is drunk and acting like a complete fool at a party. Your automatic thought might be that this person is a complete loser or chronic alcoholic. You could accept that automatic thought and go about your time there at the party or you could stop yourself and really think about the thought you just had. Is it really fair to stereotype someone as a chronic alcoholic and loser just because they have gotten drunk at this one party? Perhaps this is a very intelligent, hard working person who has been under a lot of stress lately and just needed to unwind. They might even be someone you could be friends with. By consciously acknowledging and then exploring your automatic thoughts you are engaging in controlled thinking which may or may not influence your views of the social world.
Automatic thoughts are linked with unconscious thoughts, which often allow us to make quick decisions. Psychological studies are very much interested in finding out more about the thoughts that happen when we aren’t in a state of controlled thinking. Some argue that unconscious thought can be more beneficial at times than conscious thought.  For instance, you might have heard about people who will think long and hard about a problem and then do something completely unrelated for a period of time. When they come back to the problem they discover that they have an answer. The answer was formed by their subconscious while they were focusing on other tasks. Science has not yet proven that this is a better way to solve problems that constant concentration, but it is nevertheless something to keep in mind if you are ever getting frustrated with your work.
Another example of unconscious thought is the “cocktail party” effect , which has been proven by a couple of studies. If you are in a crowded room with a lot of people and they are all engaging in conversation, you might be ignoring all of the voices and then suddenly hear a word that catches your interest because it has to do with your interests or unconscious thoughts.
Unconscious thought also comes into play when we are in a mode of competition. To stay ahead we might do things that go against our controlled thoughts just so that we may win. Evolutionary speaking, this makes perfect sense. If you are a store salesperson working for commission against other salespeople and one of those rival employees comes up and starts conversation, your words might be influenced by an unconscious thought process that causes you to reveal as little as possible so that your rival doesn’t become a better salesperson.
Throughout our lives we build mental structures that are somewhat like programs in a computer. These schemas, as they are called, are created by our brains to help organize our knowledge of the world.  Schemas determine the opinions we form, the information we are willing to seek out and accept, and what we think about. Once we have formed these programs in our minds, they will run automatically whenever we encounter something which triggers them. If someone tells you that they met an attractive girl but doesn’t explain what she looks like, you might access one of your schemas to give yourself a mental picture of what this attractive girl might look like. Schemas can be good because it helps us navigate the world easier by giving us common sense and knowledge about society and world. Imagine your first day at a new job or the first date with someone you like. You were probably feeling anxious, scared, excited and unsure of what to expect. After a couple of months with your new job or significant other, however, you will have created a number of schemas which make the situations much easier to endure on a day to day basis. If we didn’t create schemas, we would be in a constant state of fear and uncertainty. We wouldn’t know anything about the world we live in and it would make every second of life a very taxing experience. While schemas are good things and help make life an easier thing to handle, they can also act as negative forces.
Schemas that are built around simplified or standardized conceptions of certain people or things are called stereotypes.  Stereotypes can be installed in one’s mind through the influence of family members and popular culture, as well as personal experience. An example of a stereotype might be that asian people are bad drivers. Maybe you learned this from one of your relatives, who always got angry at other cars on the road and would say things like “must be an asian” or “asians shouldn’t be given drivers licenses”. This could have given you the same schema, which causes you to have an irrational and incorrect notion that all asians must be bad drivers.
Numerous studies have been done to test the idea of negative stereotyping. In one (Payne, 2001), nonblack college students were shown an image of a face and then an image of either a tool or weapon and told to press one button if the person in the image was holding a tool and another if they were holding a weapon. Half of the facial images were of white people and the other half were of black people. The study showed that “people were significantly more likely to mistake a tool for a gun when it was preceded by a black face than when it was preceded by a white face”.  Other similar studies have shown that there is a widely held stereotype that black people are more likely to be hostile and dangerous than white people.
Obviously, stereotypes can lead to serious sociological problems as people are mistreated and unfairly judged because of their looks, hobbies, disabilities, etc.
When we constantly experience something in our lives it will most likely create an accessible schema. The brain is always using this schema to help explain social situations that it is always kept at the forefront of the mind, just waiting to be tapped.  Accessibility also has to do with temporary priorities and goals. If you have to memorize lines for a play you are putting on at school and are serious about doing a good job, then you will create a schema that is constantly accessible and helps you to complete your goal.
Some schema may be primed into accessibility. Priming occurs when we have experiences which create and trigger a schema.  If you had just seen something on the news that said scientists were expecting a large earthquake to happen soon, then you might be more likely to think that any tremors you feel or noises you hear are the onset of an earthquake. The schema has been made accessible for a short period of time until you are able to stop worrying about an earthquake happening.
Even after a schema has been proven false we might still be susceptible to the original schema that had been created. If you were told that all homeless people are violent drunks then you might create a schema that plays every time you encounter a homeless person. One day you volunteer at a homeless shelter just to see if the stereotype is true and you are amazed to see absolutely no violent drunks. Even though you have seen for yourself that the stereotype is incorrect, you still might adhere to the schema for a variety of different reasons. This is called the perseverance effect. It can be used to explain a number of interesting aspects of society, such as the continual existence of racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan even after black people were declared by law as equals to all other humans.
The perseverance of schema is not always a bad thing though.  Sometimes it can be helpful to hold onto a schema even if it is being discredited by your own experiences. For instance, if you always thought that homeless people were kind, misunderstood people who aren’t druggies or alcoholics, then it would be a shame to let one or two rude and drunk homeless men erase your entire schema.
Sometimes when people expect another person to be a certain way it will influence the way they treat that person. Let’s say I have deduced
from stereotypes on MTV and other pop culture entertainment that
attractive blonde women are stuck-up, rude, and have serious attitude
problems. I have written a schema inside of my head that tells me that
is how pretty blonde women are. Now imagine it is my first day in a new
class and I am sitting next to a beautiful blonde. She is chatting with
her friend about clothes. The schema in my head has already begun
playing and has been reaffirmed by the seemingly shallow conversation
this blonde is having. Since I imagine this girl is stuck up, I decide
I will show her little respect since she will probably think of me as a
loser and because she’d never give me the time of day. When I am
working on a worksheet during class, the girl looks over at my paper.
I turn to her and say, “What’s your problem?”
She looks and says, “Nothing, I was wondering what you got for question number five.”
“I don’t like cheaters,” I shoot back.
At this point the girl is flustered and upset. She shouts “You’re a prick!”
After a chain of
subconscious thoughts related to my schema, I acted in such a way as to
provoke the girl to behave so that the schema would be proven correct.
This was a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The girl is most likely an
intelligent, kind woman who did not deserve to be treated like a jerk,
but I was too blind to see that. As a result of the self-fulfilling
prophecy, my irrational schema has been made even stronger.
Another example of a stereotypical schema resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy is if a girl were treated by her teacher as ‘inferior’ in intelligence to the boys in a classroom, she might begin to believe that she really is less intelligent. This causes her to do bad on her tests which reinforces the stereotype.
Making decisions is a huge part of life. Every day we make hundreds or thousands of different decisions that range from small things (what word to use in a sentence you’re writing) to large things (which companies you apply to work for). Each decision has a plethora of alternatives that go along with it. Sometimes we will spend many days, weeks, months, and years exhaustively weighing a decision such as whether or not you should get married and to whom. Since we obviously don’t spend years thinking about every decision we make in life, we must employ shortcuts that help to make our choices easier to arrive at. Psychologists call these mental shortcuts heuristics. 
When we use mental shortcuts to help make judgments quickly and efficiently, they are called judgmental heuristics. 
If you are faced with a dilemma and must make a decision, it might be easiest to choose based on the first thing that comes to mind. When people use this form of decision making it is called availability heuristic.  This is helpful because it allows for quick judgments and decisions. The problem with this method is that it can be based on faulty logic or schema that aren’t applicable to the current situation. For instance, studies have shown that medical doctors sometimes use the availability heuristic to diagnose their patients. They might make note of a couple of symptoms and then immediately diagnose the patient with the first diagnosis that comes to mind which fits all of those symptoms. The problem, of course, is that there are so many different illnesses that there is a possibility that the patient does not have what the doctor has decided they do.
Accessibility plays a role in the availability heuristic. Imagine you were just in a class where you spent many hours learning about the negative aspects of the United States government. Afterward you are confronted with the opportunity to volunteer and help register people to vote. You might immediately recall all the bad stuff you just heard about America and decide that volunteering for such a cause is pointless. Because of an accessible schema you have used the availability heuristic to turn down a cause you might otherwise have thought was good if it weren’t for your recent experience.
When we access stereotypes or common ideas about how something should be in order to make a decision or come to a conclusion, we are using representativeness heuristic.  If you saw a middle aged man in the grocery store one day who was dressed in a fancy business suit with a nice haircut, you might immediately decide that he must be a rich and intelligent executive for some company in the area. This might be true, but it might also be true that this man has just interviewed to work as a cashier at the grocery store you are in. Coming to conclusions like this requires categorical knowledge about the world.
In order to decide whether the man in the suit works for a company in the area, we might use base rate information which takes into account the number of people in categories within a relative population. If the grocery store were near the business district of a large city then it might be fair to say that he works in the area. If the grocery store were by on the outskirts of a town and by an airport, it might be fair to guess that the man is visiting from another location.
helpful when someone is making a serious decision or engaged in solving
a problem or doing important work. Another useful aspect of controlled
thinking is that it helps us improve our minds by modifying and
building schema.  People can become trapped thinking stereotypes or unfair thoughts that hinder the lives of people around them. If someone was raised in a racist household where hating Mexicans was commonplace, then it might be easy to keep that schema alive through automatic thinking. The goal of modern education, however, is to teach people to be critical thinkers who can investigate all sides of an issue and make up their own minds about what to believe. This is where controlled thinking becomes very important. If people can notice when an automatic thought seems unfair, unwarranted, irrational, or just plain dumb then they can start to pick at the schema which caused that automatic thought and attempt to reconstruct it with a more realistic and friendly view. It is this way that humans can improve as social and intellectual beings.
People are prone to obsession about things that have happened in their past. It is natural to wonder about what might have been if a certain tragedy had not happened or if you had made different decisions. When someone makes changes to aspects of their past in order to imagine an alternative future to the actual one they are living, it is called counterfactual thinking.  An example might be someone thinking that if they had asked the girl they had a crush on out for a date back in high school then they would be happily married and successful, but instead they are single, depressed, and struggling with poverty. There are obvious negatives to such thoughts, as they keep people stuck dwelling on the sad aspects of their past rather than living in the present so they can keep moving forward with life. In some ways, however, counterfactual thinking can be helpful by teaching someone a life lesson and making them better prepared to handle future situations that are similar to the one they’ve been dwelling on in their past.
Counterfactual thinking can be a mix of both automatic and controlled thinking. If someone got dumped by their significant other they will probably consciously spend time in the past imagining alternative realities where they could still be with the person they love. Once they have gotten over the break-up and moved on they will most likely stop using controlled thinking. They might automatically imagine their past the next time they are asked out on a date or feel an attraction to someone, in which case they will unconsciously fall into counterfactual thinking.
When there is something from our past that we find unpleasant or hurtful to think about, such as the death of a loved one, then we might try to consciously forget it, which is called thought suppression.  Thought suppression involves two different cognitive systems working together to keep thoughts buried in the subconscious mind. The monitoring process will scan your brain for any sign that the unwanted thought is about to emerge into the consciousness. If the unwanted thought is found then the operating process will cause you to find something distracting to do so that you stop thinking your unwanted thoughts. The goal is to keep busy with things unrelated to the thought you’re suppressing. Sometimes it works in an ironically opposite way where the thought you are trying hard to suppress is all you can think about because of the situation you are in at the time. Those suffering from Anorexia Nervosa build their whole life around thought suppression. Their body is screaming “I’m hungry, feed me!” while the anorexic person tries hard to ignore their biological need to eat by doing repetitive tasks unrelated to food. Sometimes the hunger is so great, however, that they simply cannot think of anything besides food. This is especially so when an anorexic is put into a social situation where food is constantly present, like a thanksgiving dinner.
Thought suppression can be harmful if it is too effective. Those who experience traumatic events such as rape or sexual molestation will often suppress a lot of very emotionally heavy thoughts and feelings. As a result, they become bogged down by their subconscious and enter into states of depression. Therapy can sometimes unlock suppressed thoughts which ultimately leaves the patient in a much better mental health.
The goal of this knol is to serve as an overview and introduction of the concepts in social cognition studies. The study of social cognition is hardly complete. There is still a great deal more left to be discovered and understood about how humans think in relation to the social world.
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