Social Cognition

Social Cognition

Social cognition, like general cognition, uses schemas to help people form judgments and conclusions about the world.

Learning Objectives

Explain the role of social schemas in social cognition

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Social  cognition is the encoding, storage, retrieval, and processing of information about other members of the same species.
  • A notable theory of social cognition is social- schema theory.
  • Through schema activation, judgments are formed that go beyond the information actually available; in social schemas, the same holds true.
  • There are thought to be cultural differences in social cognition; Western social cognition is thought to be more analytical, while Eastern social cognition is thought to be more holistic.
  • The relationship between social behavior and neural activity is not fully understood.

Key Terms

  • schema: An pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them.
  • salience: The degree to which a particular object stands out relative to other objects in a situation.
  • priming: A prior experience that causes a schema to be more accessible.

Social cognition is the encoding, storage, retrieval, and processing of information about members of the same species; from a human perspective, it is simply the ability to think about and understand others. Social cognition is a specific approach of social psychology (the area of psychology that studies how people’s thoughts and behaviors are influenced by the presence of others) that uses the methods of cognitive science. Because of this it has a heavy emphasis on information processing: How do people process information about the people around them, and how does that affect their own perceptions of the world?


In schema theory, when we see or think of a concept, a mental representation or “schema” is activated that brings to mind other related information, usually unconsciously. Through schema activation, judgments are formed based on internal assumptions in addition to information actually available in the environment.

Similarly, a notable theory of social cognition is social-schema theory. This theory suggests that we have mental representations for specific social situations. For example, if you meet your new teacher, your “teacher schema” may be activated, and you may therefore automatically associate this person with wisdom and authority if that is how you have experienced past teachers.

When a schema is more “accessible,” this means that it can be more quickly activated and used in a particular situation. Two cognitive processes that increase the accessibility of schemas are salience and priming. In social cognition, 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 late at night might increase the accessibility of frightening schemas, increasing the likelihood that a person will perceive shadows and background noises as potential threats.

Cultural Differences in Social Cognition

Social psychologists have become increasingly interested in the influence of culture on social cognition. Although people of all cultures use schemas to understand the world, the content of our schemas has been found to differ for individuals based on their cultural upbringing. For example, one study interviewed a Scottish settler and a Bantu herdsman from Swaziland and compared their schemas about cattle. Because cattle are essential to the lifestyle of the Bantu people, the Bantu herdsman’s schemas for cattle were far more extensive than the schemas of the Scottish settler. The Bantu herdsmen was able to distinguish his cattle from dozens of others, while the Scottish settler was not.

Studies have found that culture influences social cognition in other ways too. In fact, cultural influences have been found to shape some of the basic ways in which people automatically perceive and think about their environment. For example, a number of studies have found that people who grow up in East Asian cultures such as China and Japan tend to develop holistic thinking styles, whereas people brought up in Western cultures like Australia and the USA tend to develop analytic thinking styles. The typically Eastern holistic thinking style is a type of thinking in which people focus on the overall context and the ways in which objects relate to each other. For example, if an Easterner was asked to judge how a classmate is feeling, she might scan everyone’s face in the class, and then use that information to judge how the individual is feeling. On the other hand, the typically Western analytic thinking style is a type of thinking style in which people focus on individual objects and neglect to consider the surrounding context. For example, if a Westerner was asked to judge how a classmate is feeling she might focus only on the classmate’s face in order to make the judgment.

Neuroscience of Social Cognition

People with autism, psychosis, antisocial personality disorder, and other disorders show differences in social behavior compared to their unaffected peers. Whether social cognition is entirely underpinned by neural mechanisms is still an open question. However, cases like Phineas Gage’s suggest that there is some kind of relationship between neural activity and social behavior.


Phineas Gage: Phineas Gage’s brain damage became an important case study in the field of psychology; damage to his frontal lobe with a tamping iron (pictured) changed his social behavior, leading psychologists to believe that there were neural aspects of behavior.