Social Cognition

For thousands of years there has been philosophier step in the evolutionary process or descended from aliens, there is no denying that humans are different from other animals. Although many aspects of psychology, such as perception, learning, and memory, can be generalized across species, the field of social cognition deals exclusively with thoughts and behaviors that are (arguably) uniquely human. This is because social cognition is concerned with the mental processes that subserve people’s understanding of both self and other individuals. By default, it takes a social agent to know one. For this reason, a great deal of social cognition research has focused on determining whether or not the thoughts people have about other people are driven by the same basic mental operations that regulate humans’ understanding of tables, automobiles, and seafood gumbo. For example, are there dedicated systems that deal with information about the social world and its diverse inhabitants?

Social CognitionSocial cognition draws heavily on material within cognitive psychology and social psychology to examine the relationship between basic cognitive operations and fundamental social problems. In this respect, work in this domain has attempted to show that, during his or her lifetime, an individual’s thoughts and behaviors are influenced by his or her preceding social experiences, but at the same time, these experiences are modified by the individual’s current behaviors. This dynamic relationship between cognition and social experience means that social cognition affects almost every area of human existence. To help explain the importance of social cognition in everyday life, this paper will explore what it would perhaps be like to try to live without the capacity to understand self and others. The examples that follow will therefore speculate on what it would be like if you encountered an alien (called Todf) who was human-like in every respect, apart from the fact that Todf has no social-cognitive abilities. Would such a person be able to cope with everyday social situations?

One of the central topics in social cognition is person perception, the way in which people collect and use information about other people to guide their interactions with them. From infancy, humans have an in-built preference for human beings (i.e., social agents) over other objects, and the face is a stimulus of particular interest. Even before humans can walk or talk, they begin to learn the skills of nonverbal communication that provide them with their first interactive social experiences. Within only a few months of birth, human infants can decode facial expressions and begin to make sense of their social world and the people around them. Imagine the problems that Todf would experience if he were unable to produce and decipher the meaning inherent in facial expressions; successful social interaction would be beyond his grasp. Humans constantly rely on very subtle facial cues to determine what other people are intending (e.g., I’m going to kiss you), thinking (e.g., You look just like Pamela Anderson), and feeling (e.g., I love you). People can usually determine from a face whether someone is behaving threateningly toward them, when a friend is entertained by an anecdote, or when a partner is annoyed by one’s behavior. Although it is possible to use language to convey the contents of their inner mental lives, frequently people rely on faces to do the talking. Without such a capacity, Todf would be mind blind.

Social cognition allows people to read the faces of other people and enables them to decode the contents of their minds. Imagine the alien Todf in a classroom with children ages 5 or 6 years old. If the teacher pointed out of the window to an oak tree in the school yard and asked the class, “What is that?” they would probably all reply, “A tree.” Although answering this question correctly may not seem like a tricky task, without social cognition Todf would probably furnish an incorrect response. He may even be confused as to why tree was the appropriate response. Why not window, bird, leaf, or trunk? The reason that children performed the task with aplomb is because they were all able to read the teacher’s mind, they knew exactly what it was she was asking when she pointed her index finger toward the window. This ability to work out what other people are thinking is known as theory of mind and is a core component of human social cognition Arguably, the capacity sets humans apart from other species and makes them different. Indeed, without a theory of mind, people would find it impossible to empathize or sympathize with other people. They would never be able to climb into the shoes of another person and experience the world through their eyes. Without such a capacity, successful social interaction would be impossible.

The previous example highlights another important core aspect of social cognition, the observation that social agents continually strive to simplify and structure their knowledge of the world. Children probably possess extensive knowledge of trees and could provide this material when requested. This is because information about the world is stored in extensive networks in memory, networks, or schemas that can be accessed with rapidity and ease. The simplest way of thinking about schemas is to imagine that the brain contains many locked filing cabinets, with numerous files stored within each cabinet. These files contain information, varying in specificity, with respect to the content of the file. For example, when the category “tree” is probed, the relevant cabinet (or schema) is unlocked and all the information is made available. Storing related information in this way enables us to access material just when it is needed most. It also prevents irrelevant knowledge from entering consciousness at the wrong time. Although storing information in this way is useful, it can have some interesting consequences when the files contain information about other people and the cabinets are organized in a group-based manner (e.g., men, women, plumbers, bodybuilders).

One consequence of schema-based organization of information about people is that the tendency to neatly arrange information in this way can lead to stereotyping and prejudice. Stereotyping involves the generalization of specific features, beliefs, or properties to entire groups of people (e.g., if he’s a man, he must be aggressive, ambitious, and unemotional). Prejudice occurs when people act on these beliefs. This is one area whereby the alien Todf may, on the surface, appear to have a slight advantage over people. If he did not have the ability to create stereotypes based on his previous knowledge and experience of people, then he would be free from any possible prejudices. People would be treated as unique entities and social interaction would be free from discrimination. However, to form individual, accurate, well-informed impressions of every person he encounters, Todf would require enormous amounts of time and energy. Suppose the alien and a human were both given the task of selling 100 tickets for a nightclub. Armed with their stereotypic knowledge (or not, as the case would be) of the kinds of people most likely to enjoy dancing, drinking, and falling over, the human may attempt to sell the tickets to students on a university campus. The alien on the other hand, completely clueless about the vagaries of human social behavior, may consider retirement homes as an ideal place to sell the tickets, as there is a captive audience of potential buyers with disposable income. Who do you think would sell their tickets fastest? Although potentially troublesome, generalized beliefs about groups of people can be handy at times.

All of the previous examples have shown the problems an alien without social cognition would encounter when dealing with other people. Several difficulties may arise from another core component of social cognition, an understanding and appreciation of self. The self is generally considered the conscious insight a person has into his or her own existence. As such, this construct gives human life meaning, order, and purpose. People’s memories are based on their own unique experience of events, their current activity is construed in a personalized way, and their view of the future is theirs and theirs alone. As the self and consciousness are so intertwined, and because they are at the very center of what is consider to be human, it does not seem possible to imagine an alien that is humanlike but that does not possess a self. Without a self, the alien would merely be an automaton, a robot capable of mimicking human actions but incapable of understanding them. When it comes to being a person, social cognition matters.

References:

  1. Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Boston: MIT Press/Bradford Books.
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