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Social Cognition

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1. Discuss the topic of social cognition and in particular the role of heuristics in the way we process information. Briefly describe two different heuristics and give examples of how and when they might be used as well as problems connected with their use.

The manner in which we interpret, analyze, remember, and use information about the social world is known as social cognition to social psychologists. This process has a large effect on our daily lives as we interact socially. The thought processes of social cognition is one that is “automatic”, therefore we quickly, effortlessly, and without careful reasoning interpret our social environment (Baron & Branscombe, 2012). This automatic process can lead to accurate judgments or can lead to significant errors in conclusions drawn.

Social cognition is multi-faceted, but there are simple rules for making complex decisions or drawing inferences in a rapid and seemingly effortless manner, these are known as heuristics. Rather than being careful, systematic, and effortful the components of social thoughts can be complex. There are many types of heuristics such as: representativeness, anchoring and adjustment, and availability.

The representativeness heuristic is a strategy for making judgments based on the extent to which current stimuli or events resemble other stimuli or categories (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 38). This means that by using this heuristic individuals are passing judgment on the simple rule: the more an individual seems to resemble or match a given group, the more likely he or she is to belong to that group. When the representativeness heuristic is imposed the individual uses a prototype, a summary of the common attributes possessed by members of a category, to pass their judgment. This approach to social cognition is used often for instance when we meet new people.

We often judge by their characteristics to determine for instance what social circle they follow or if they are successful. This particular role may also lead to problems as well. For instance, I am in a supervisory position in which I oversee eight individuals and while at work I am in a suit and tie. But when I leave work I am dressed in normal apparel in which my tattoos show. If someone were to judge me based on my appearance out of work they would assume I am an unprofessional, unqualified, young man. They wouldn’t know that I have worked for 7 years in government work and am currently in school working on my Masters in Management. Judging a book by its cover is a weakness of many, but should not be the case always in social cognition.

The availability heuristic is a strategy for making judgments on the basis of how easily specific kinds of information can be brought to mind. This method suggests that the easier it is to bring information to forefront of one’s mind the greater its influence on judgments and decisions. The use of this heuristic is easy to understand because it suggests that important events should influence judgments and decisions. This however can lead to error in social judgments specifically by leading individuals to overestimate the likeliness of events that are dramatic but rare because they are easy to remember (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 39-40).

Applying this heuristic is beneficial in instances such as decisions at work or in an academic environment. If an individual learns through experience that their supervisor or professor does not condone a certain action or behavior then they will remember this and act accordingly the next time they are in that setting. This heuristic can lead to errors for instance if a person has a bad experience while learning to drive. If they affiliate the action of driving automatically to this experience they will refrain from the action even though the incident is rare.

Social cognition is a term that defines a vast area of society’s social interactions. When interpreting the social world we analyze and remember events constantly. These memories and experiences attribute to the way in which we infer future situations. Many times these prior instances assist in our analysis of current or future social interactions, but there are times when this system can be flawed. Heuristics are the rules we apply for complex decisions when drawing inferences in a simple and effortless manner. Heuristics such as representativeness, anchoring and adjustment, and availability are each an approach to the action of using pre-experienced actions to determine judgments and actions especially in social interactions (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 37 – 40).

2. Discuss schemas: their effects, how they are activated, the perseverance effect, and their tendency to become self-fulfilling. Schemas are the mental frameworks centering on a specific theme that help us to organize social information. These frameworks guide a person’s actions and assist in the processing of pertinent information (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 43). Once a schema has been developed, they play a role in the in determining the interpretation of the social world. Research suggests that schemas influence social thought on three basic processes: attention, encoding, and retrieval. Schemas act as a filter, by having individuals notice consistent information, and are often used when experiencing cognitive load and handling a bulk of information.

The processes that influence schemas: attention, encoding, and retrieval each assist in making judgment. Attention refers to the information noticed, Encoding refers to the process through which the information gets stored into memory, and retrieval refers to the process through which information is recovered from memory. The encoding process is the focus of attention is much more likely to be stored in long-term memory (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 44). While schema consistent information is readily available in our memory information that is inconsistent with our schemas may also be encoded into a separate memory location. People tend to remember information that is consistent as opposed to inconsistent; however incongruent information can strongly be imbedded in memory as well.

The array of schemas is great, but which of the schemas assists in the interpretation of social information. The stronger and more developed the schema they more likely to influence our thinking. Schemas can also be activated by priming, a situation that occurs when stimuli or events increase the availability in memory or consciousness of specific types of information held in memory (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 45). This indicates that recent events or experiences can cause a schema to be “activated” and exert its effects on current thinking. Just as a schema can be activated, it can also be deactivated. The effects of the schemas tend to persist until they are somehow expressed in thought or behavior and only then do their effects decrease, this is known as unpriming. If primed schemas are not expressed, the effects may persist over a long period, even years.

Though schemas are based on our past experiences and assists in the understanding of social information they also have a downside. A schema influences our social interactions because the information noticed is entered into our memory and later remembered. A schema can produce a distortion in the understanding of the social world. Schemas also display a resistance to change, the perseverance effect is the tendency for beliefs and schemas to remain unchanged even in the face of contradictory information. Schemas can also be self-fulfilling, in which we translate social interaction to be consistent with the schema even if it is not. This means that if a schema is created based on incorrect or unstable information, the individual runs the risk of misinterpreting current or future events in a social setting (Baron & Branscombe, 2012).

Schemas wield a powerful effect on what is noticed, what is entered into memory, and what is later remembered. Once a schema has been formed, it can enhance or skew the way in which social environments and interactions are perceived. The consequences of an ill perceived social world can lead to inefficiency, and misconception.

3. Fully explain the difference between automatic processing and controlled processing of information and provide an example of each. The processing of information happens in two distinct ways automatic or controlled. Automatic processing occurs when, after extensive experience with a task or type of information, a stage is reached in which the task can be performed in a seemingly effortless, automatic, and nonconscious manner (Baron & Branscombe, 2012). Controlled processing is a systematic, logical, and very effortful manner (Baron & Branscombe, 2012). The distinction between the two manners has been proven in many studies.

Automatic processing is the act of processing information based on experience. For instance the act of driving becomes an automatic after much experience (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 48). When an individual starts driving they exert most of their conscious effort learning which pedal to push, pay attention to speed, watch for pedestrians, and monitor the traffic patterns. As the individual gains experience this obvious conscious effort lessons because these aspects become second nature.

For example, driving to a location taking the same route many times can cause a driver to not remember their actual actions. As time passes they can divide their conscious and perform multiple tasks such as holding a conversation or contemplating a work procedure. “Once automatic processing is initiated, individuals may –again unconsciously- begin to prepare for future interaction with the people or groups who are the focus of this automatic processing.” (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 48).

Controlled processing requires constant attention, and holds a consistent hold on the conscious exerted (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 48). Using the same example; driving after much practice becomes second nature to many, but there are times when a controlled level of processing is required. Examples of situation in which this can happen are when traffic patterns change, extreme weather, traffic conditions, or unfamiliar settings. These instances cause someone that was once automatically and unconsciously driving to begin paying attention.

The concept of processing information is handled primarily in two ways, automatic and controlled. The automatic and controlled method of processing information is supported by research that suggests people possess two different neural systems for processing social information. Each of these operations is reflected by activation in different regions of the brain. Each method of processing can affect social behavior, such as the way in which an individual responds to situations based on familiarity or does the individual need to make more of a conscious effort.

4. Discuss the phenomena of persuasion and the cognitive processes that underlie it.
Persuasion is an aspect of social interaction that occurs more than one would presume. In fact society faces the phenomena of persuasion through billboards while driving to work, radio or television commercials, magazine or newspaper ads, and even our friends and co-workers. Persuasion is the effort exerted to change others’ attitudes through the use of various kinds of messages (Baron &Branscombe, 2012, p. 158). Research has indicated that in order to understand the act of persuasion there is a source that directs a message to an audience. This message can be directed individually or through the masses depending on the communicator and the intended audience. The cognitive process that underlies the phenomena of persuasion can be understood in two separate ways.

The systematic or the central route to persuasion involves consideration of the message content. Society has been founded to participate and be more motivated to process information when the persuasive message is high (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 161). This is the case when members of society have an abundant amount of knowledge on the topic, have the time to engage in careful thought, or if the issue is important and members feel it is essential to gain an accurate view. An argument or message strength can affect the effectiveness of persuasion when systematic processing is employed.

The heuristic processing or the peripheral route to persuasion describes the use of mental shortcuts which require less effort and allow individuals to react to persuasive messages in an automatic manner. Society engages in a heuristic process to persuasion when the capacities to process or motivation to comprehend are lacking (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 161). This occurs when the issue seems unimportant or has little potential to affect the individual or individuals concerned. There are many interested parties that prey on society via the heuristic mode of processing persuasion such as politicians, advertisers, and salespeople. The heuristic mode of processing persuasion depends on cues such as communicator’s attractiveness or credibility.

The contrasting modes of processing persuasion systematic and heuristic each delve into the inspiration behind persuasion. Many studies have proven that cognitively individuals are involved in the level and success of persuasion
they experience. When an individual or individuals feel vested in the message being communicated, and they tend to have more capacity to pay attention. Modern theories of persuasion have researched each mode of processing to understand the cognitive process, and several studies have concluded the differences in each which allow parties interested in persuading others to tailor their method.

Baron, R. A., & Branscombe, N. R. (2012). Social psychology (13th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

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