The human brain contains about 86 billion neurons, each of which can make contact with tens of thousands of other neurons. The distinguishing brain feature in mammals, including humans, is the more recently evolved cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that is involved in thinking. Humans are highly intelligent, and they use cognition in every part of their social lives. Psychologists refer to cognition as the mental activity of processing information and using that information in judgment. Social cognition is cognition that relates to social activities and that helps us understand and predict the behavior of ourselves and others.
Over time, people develop a set of social knowledge that contains information about the self, other people, social relationships, and social groups. Two types of knowledge are particularly important in social psychology: schemas and attitudes. A schema is a knowledge representation that includes information about a person or group (e.g., our knowledge that Joe is a friendly guy or that Italians are romantic). An attitude is a knowledge representation that includes primarily our liking or disliking of a person, thing, or group (“I really like Julie”; “I dislike my new apartment”). Once we have formed them, both schemas and attitudes allow us to judge quickly and without much thought whether someone or something we encounter is good or bad, helpful or hurtful, to be sought out or avoided. Thus schemas and attitudes have an important influence on our social information processing and social behavior.
Social cognition involves the active interpretation of events. As a result, different people may draw different conclusions about the same events. When Indira smiles at Robert, he might think that she is romantically attracted to him, whereas she might think that she’s just being friendly. When Mike tells a joke about Polish people, he might think it’s funny, but Wanda might think he is being prejudiced. The 12 members of a jury who are deliberating about the outcome in a trial have all heard the same evidence, but each juror’s own schemas and attitudes may lead him or her to interpret the evidence differently. The fact that different people interpret the same events differently makes life interesting, but it can sometimes lead to disagreement and conflict. Social psychologists study how people interpret and understand their worlds and, particularly, how they make judgments about the causes of other people’s behavior.