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Thinking Like a Social Psychologist about Social Cognition

15 January, 2016 - 09:15

Consider your schemas and attitudes toward some of the many people you have met in your life—perhaps those you knew in school, the people in your family, or those in your wider social groups or other organizations. And also think about people you have only heard about rather than have met—maybe those from other countries or cultures. Did operant learning influence your opinions about them? Did you model your behavior after them? Or perhaps you had a single negative encounter with one person and disliked that person or his or her social group for a long time after.

Perhaps you can remember some times when you may have misinterpreted events or judged people incorrectly because your opinions were influenced by the operation of your existing expectations. Did you ever falsely assume that someone had a given characteristic and assimilate information into your existing expectations more than you might have? For instance, did you ever find yourself thinking that the referees in a sports game were favoring the other team rather than your own, or that the media was treating the political candidate that you oppose better than the one you prefer? Could this have occurred because your attitudes or beliefs influenced your interpretation of the information?

And perhaps you can remember times when you were influenced by salience, accessibility, or other information-processing biases. Did you ever feel bad when you got a 94 on your test when a 95 would have given you an A, or when you changed an answer on an exam rather than sticking with it? In these cases, you might have fallen victim to counterfactual thinking. Perhaps you erroneously judged someone on the basis of your beliefs about what they “should have been like” rather than on the basis of more accurate statistical information—the misuse of the representativeness heuristic.

Maybe you can now more fully reflect on all the ways in which your social cognition and affective states influence each other, and just how intertwined they are in understanding your social worlds.

Finally, think back once more on the story with which we opened this chapter. Can you see how important social cognitive biases can be in how we understand the world we live in, and how useful it is to understand the ways in which our thinking operates to produce accurate, and yet sometimes inaccurate, judgments? In many ways, our lives are influenced by our social cognition.

We hope that this chapter has provided you with some new and useful ideas about how you and others form impressions and has reminded you how others are forming (potentially erroneous) impressions of you. Most important, perhaps you have learned to be more modest about your judgments. Please remember to consider the possibility that your judgments and decisions, no matter how right and accurate they feel to you, may simply be wrong.