Interpersonal Cognition

Interpersonal Cognition Definition

Interpersonal cognition is the set of mental processes by which people think about their interactions and relationships with others. Research in the area of interpersonal cognition aims to understand how people perceive the many layers of information present in social interactions and how they process this information and store it in memory. A major goal of this research is to understand how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior in social interactions are influenced by expectations based on past interactions. In particular, researchers often consider the idea that how people think about themselves is influenced by the relationships that they have with others.

Interpersonal Cognition Background and History

Interpersonal CognitionInterpersonal cognition research grew rapidly in the 1990s, as researchers expanded their view of social cognition beyond looking at social objects in isolation and acknowledged the importance of considering interpersonal experiences. That is, whereas the broader area of social cognition looks at how social information about self and about others is dealt with, interpersonal cognition research considers that complex patterns of interaction between self and others are also perceived, processed, stored, and recalled. A person might come to believe that trusting others makes that person likely to be taken advantage of, for example, or that treating others with respect leads them to respond warmly in return. This expectancy might influence the kinds of information the person pays attention to in new interactions, the kinds of inferences he or she draws about other people’s behavior, and the kinds of memories the person stores to draw on in the future.

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Thought processes about interpersonal interaction are strongly linked with motivation and emotion. It has been argued, for example, that through evolution humans have developed a powerful need to belong. Thus, people are motivated to assess, process, and encode their interpersonal encounters in terms of whether they are being rejected or accepted. Perceptions of rejection can trigger powerful negative emotions, such as shame, anxiety, and sadness. Other motives, including desires to be respected, admired, or feared, can trigger other emotions as well.

Measuring Interpersonal Cognition

Assessing interpersonal cognition is done in two primary ways: explicitly and implicitly. An explicit measure of interpersonal cognition relies on a person reporting how he or she feels about his or her social interactions. For example, measures of attachment ask people about how they feel in a romantic relationship (e.g., “When romantic partners disapprove of me, I feel really bad about myself). On the other hand, implicitly measuring variables associated with interpersonal cognition allows researchers to tap into thoughts and feelings that a person might not be aware of. For example, a lexical decision task can measure people’s automatic cognitive associations between failure and rejection, and success and acceptance. In this task, participants classify letter-strings that appear on a computer screen as either a word or not a word. If a person is faster to identify a rejection-related word (e.g., disliked) right after seeing a failure-related word (e.g., mistake), this can be taken as evidence that the person holds a cognitive association between failure and rejection. Studies have shown that associations of this kind give rise to an interpersonal script, which usually takes the form of an “if-then” contingency. For example, people with low self-esteem are most likely to show the expectancy that “If I fail, then I will be rejected (by others)” and also to show a general sensitivity to social rejection.

Many researchers have explored the effect of past interpersonal experiences on current interpersonal expectancies. For example, a person may act or respond differently depending on whether he or she is interacting with a close friend versus a romantic partner versus a person in authority, because the person has learned specific expectancies and scripts about how interactions will likely proceed. A common method used to tap into this phenomenon is priming. Priming research involves presenting a participant with a cue that activates a construct in memory and subsequently influences behavior. For example, having a person visualize a person who “will accept you, no matter what,” activates a sense of social acceptance and leads to less critical thoughts following a difficult task.

Relational Selves and Attachment

In theoretical terms, the type of research described in the previous section, common in the domain of interpersonal cognition, explores the mental representation of the self in relation to others (e.g., romantic partner, friend), which gives rise to relational selves. The idea here is that people do not have a single, unified self-concept but rather have a series of relational selves in memory, each linked to specific significant others. Furthermore, people tend to act the same way around similar types of people. For example, meeting a person who is reminiscent of one’s father is likely to activate the relational self experienced with one’s father, leading to expressions of behavior and expectations of how the other person will act. Other research has found that people often incorporate knowledge about an “other” into knowledge about the self. This can be described as a shared resources type of knowledge, where a person relies on and draws from shared knowledge, perspectives, and resources to determine whether or not a goal can be achieved (e.g., “I can do this because my partner will show me how”).

An important topic studied by interpersonal cognition researchers is people’s general attitude toward close relationships with others, in other words, their attachment style. Repeated positive and supportive interactions with significant others leads to more positive appraisals of stressful situations, a stronger belief that life’s problems are manageable, and more positive beliefs in the good intentions of others. Furthermore, positive social interactions with significant others leads to a greater sense of one’s own self-worth, competence, and mastery. Being valued, loved, and cared for by a significant other leads to the belief that one is a valuable, loveable, and special person.

Interpersonal Cognition Implications

Because interpersonal cognition is closely tied to motivation and emotion, people’s thoughts are often shaped by their wishes and fears. In the domain of romantic relationships, research has found that people tend to engage in positive illusions and biases to maintain a committed relationship. Furthermore, a person’s decision on how much to trust an intimate partner is reflected in self-protective strategies (e.g., aggressing against the partner in reaction to perceived rejection) and is shaped by a person’s confidence about their partner’s love and acceptance.

Social interactions are an integral component of human life and have a large effect on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Interpersonal cognition defines how these interactions are mentally processed and encoded and explores how these representations influence one’s expectations about, and behavior in, future social interactions.


  • Baldwin, M. W. (Ed.). (2005). Interpersonal cognition. New York: Guilford Press.