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date: 26 February 2017

Cognition and Social Cognitive Theory

Abstract and Keywords

Social cognition refers to the ways in which people “make sense” of themselves, other people, and the world around them. Building on social psychological contributions, this entry summarizes processes through which we perceive, interpret, remember, and apply information in our efforts to render meaning and to interact. Rather than a rationalistic depiction, we see complex relationships among cognitions, emotions, motivations, and contexts. Social cognition provides guidance to mechanisms or venues through which personal and environmental transactions related to meaning take specific form, thereby offering crucial insights into adaptive or maladaptive development as well as change strategies.

A principal benefit of social cognition for social work practice is its empirically supported and broadly applicable framework for explaining how person–environment interactions unfold and might be altered in the service of social work practice and social justice. Social cognition includes, for example, social knowledge, social influences, the relationship between social structures and categories (age, race, and sex) in constructing meaning, stereotyping and other biases in information processing, dynamic processes through which memories get stored, recall, and revised, attributions of others' behavior and motives and of one's own responses and internal states, identity development, and processes through which affect, cognition, and neurophysiology interrelate as people interact with their social environments.

Keywords: cognition, social cognition, information processing, schemas, emotion, meaning, memory

Key Concepts and Processes of Social Cognition

Social cognition refers to the processes through which people perceive, interpret, remember, and apply information about themselves and the social world. These processes are often relatively automatic in nature and therefore not fully within conscious awareness. Meaning making involves complex transactions between individuals and their environment. Each of us is an active, but not the sole, participant in creating the meaning of our lives. The meanings we assign cannot be independent of the linguistic categories, rules, values, goals, and structures of our culture. The families, communities, and opportunity structures we are born into and grow up in provide a foundation of memories and norms that we use to shape and understand the ongoing flow of information and experience. Moreover, social cognition views people not only as products of their environments but also as forces that shape the construction of those environments. This focus on the person–environment interplay makes social cognitive theory particularly useful for social work.

Social cognition extends social learning theory, adding the understanding that input from the environment is mediated or filtered. We are continuously bombarded with far more information than we can possibly handle. Moreover, much of this information is complex, ambiguous, and emotionally evocative. To avoid a paralyzing overload and to allow functional navigation through our social world, we must rely on numerous shortcuts or aids to screen, sort, interpret, manage, store, and recall information that seems relevant. Research on how the brain interacts with our sensory–perceptual system and long- and short-term memory provides the basis for specifying “information processing”; that is, the mechanisms through which people go about selectively attending to, interpreting, and evaluating environmental inputs. Broad commonalities in the neurological and physiological functions of social cognition exist, indicating consistency across people at the process level. However, the content within these processes can be highly variable, reflecting the diversity of persons and the environments within which they are embedded.


Schemas are the cognitive structures or memory representations that contain our experiences and learning, for example, about ourselves, other people, attitudes, social roles, norms, and events. In our ongoing effort to form meaning, we draw on our knowledge of past situations to guide us in what to pay attention to, what interpretations to make, and how to respond. Findings from each new experience then become recorded as updates to our existing network of schemas. Language, culture, and structure play pivotal roles in the development, communication, and enactment of schemas (Hannover & Kuhnen, 2009; Lau, Lee, & Chiu, 2004).

Schemas are critically important in providing the preconceptions that make information processing more rapid, efficient, and often automatic. They are used to fill in gaps when information is missing and in interpreting new experiences (Swann & Bosson, 2010). Thus, schemas provide relief from the processing burden of treating each situation as new and all stimuli as requiring careful and deliberate attention, but in so doing they exact a price. Schemas incline us to confirm our understanding of reality, to be highly biased toward information that fits our expectations, to overlook or discount confusing or contradictory information, and to rely on relatively stereotypic images and habitual modes of social interaction. Depending on the particular circumstances, this tendency toward simplicity and stability can work as an asset or a liability. It can, for example, contribute to the tenacity with which both the well-adjusted, optimistic person and the clinically depressed person seek out, find, and build on expectation-confirming input from their experiences and their environment. That is, expectancies tend to bias information processing to reinforce, rather than challenge, extant schemas.

Schemas do not simply reside in memory as isolated bits of stored information. Rather, they are part of a memory structure that organizes concepts into hierarchical clusters and networks of related knowledge. “Nodes” of schematic knowledge linked to one another form networks of ideas; and when nodes are activated, they enter consciousness (short-term or working memory) and thereby play an active role in shaping current information processing, affective states, and action readiness. Nodes may also have a deactivation capacity that mutes access to discrepant forms of stored knowledge. Although there are several models of memory functioning (for overview, see Morris, Hitch, Graham, & Bussey, 2006), social cognition theories have been influenced by the view that schemas and connecting linkages among nodes are strengthened by repeated activation. Thus, once we come to think of certain attributes as meaningfully related (as with stereotypes), it is very difficult not to think in terms of these clusters. When we are experiencing a certain emotional or physiological feeling, we are predisposed to think about and retrieve information consistent with that feeling rather than information that is contradictory to it.

Heuristics and Social Inference

Social inferences involve processes through which people arrive at judgments or decisions about social phenomena. Social inferences take many forms, for example, attributions about intentions and causal forces, perceptions about associations, and how things go together or function. We focus here on one form of social inferences—heuristics—to illustrate this. Because we cannot constantly gather all possible data and consider all possibilities of meaning and response, we rely on heuristics, basically “rules of thumb,” when reasoning under uncertainty or to reduce complex problem solving to seemingly simpler judgments (Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010, and Kunda, 1999, provide fuller coverage of various aspects of social inference).

Like schemas, heuristics are double edged. These thinking processes are quick, automatic (involving little or no active awareness), and essential to navigating our complex social landscapes. Whereas they can be reasonably accurate, they are also highly vulnerable to biases and, not uncommonly, errors. Consider how the following examples of common inferential strategies may function in positive or negative ways: (1) basing inferences and judgments on how easily and quickly information comes to mind; (2) categorizing people or events on the basis of how much these resemble the observer's preexisting notions––their schemas––of types of people and events; (3) predicting the likely outcome of a situation based on how easily a given outcome can be envisioned and the emotional intensity of that outcome; (4) attributing people's behavior to their individual characteristics such as personality traits, rather than to external factors; and (5) anticipating a relationship between two variables, leading one to overestimate the degree of relationship or to impose a nonexistent one. Now consider that normative biases in information processing affect us all, including social workers in their professional roles. Growing awareness of naturally occurring vulnerabilities such as these is shaping attention in arenas such as clinical reasoning and contextualized assessment to include social cognitive theory as part of professional skill development.

Conscious and Automatic Modes of Information Processing

In some situations, such as a new environment, we are more aware of our thinking and reactions as we carefully observe our surroundings and monitor ourselves. However, most of the time people are unaware of their own cognitive processes. Treating most stimuli in a more automatic, efficient, and familiar manner allows us to function without becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of information available in the environment. Part of what accounts for this relative lack of awareness are the differing modes through which memory and information processing function. These are distinguishable as conscious or unconscious modes, which roughly denote controlled or controllable versus more automatic processing (Morris, Uleman, & Bargh, 2005). Although essential, being on “autopilot” (automatic processing) entails a degree of insensitivity to the environment, a heavy reliance on past constructs stored in memory, and thus a lesser likelihood of making cognitive distinctions and generating creative responses. Study of these “implicit” (automatic, unconscious) processes in social cognition is rapidly developing nuanced distinctions, assessment tools, and applications across a range of practical applications, such as consumer psychology, forensics, political and social justice–related psychology, health processes and practices, and prejudice and stereotyping, as well as clinical applications (Gawronski & Payne, 2010).

Social work practice often involves helping clients interrupt prior habits to build new ones by shifting from unhelpful and problematic, more automatic modes of processing (associated with the problem) to more deliberate, adaptive, yet awkward-feeling controlled modes (associated with the new patterns) to more natural-feeling, new, automatic modes (associated with incorporation of new patterns into one's self-concept and social niche). As an aid to interrupting problematic patterns and substituting preferred ones, cognitively oriented practice methods involve fostering metacognitive awareness to assist clients in gaining more mindful awareness of their information processing habits (for example, what inferences are made of others' expressions or behaviors and which self-defining schemas tend to be activated under trigger situations).

Knowing More Than We Can Use

Study of human memory currently argues for the concept of multiple, interdependent memory systems that are distributed in various regions of the brain. Long-term memory is generally thought to include storage of distinct forms of memory, for example, memory for events we experience, recognition of information we have been exposed to, semantic information about concepts and the meaning of words, sensorimotor skills achieved through practice, and value or emotional memory (Morris et al., 2006). Working memory refers to the system through which limited amounts of retrieved information are held in an active, conscious state. It is a critical factor in that, although we may have certain knowledge or skills in memory storage, the subset that is pulled into working memory most powerfully shapes our perceptions, interpretations, decisions, and actions in that moment. Patterns of memory activation are a two-way street. Our contemporaneous state of mind (expectancies, goals, feelings) influences both how we encode present events for storage and what we recruit into working memory. Anxiety, for example, favors retrieval of anxiety-congruent schemas and inhibits access to anxiety-incongruent content. Thus, it is not enough to assist people in developing new knowledge or skills. If memory retrieval patterns are inconsistent with these changes, those new representations are unlikely to successfully compete with more long-standing, deeply networked schemas. These existing schemas are the basis for cognitive change strategies that work to first illuminate and then progressively revise memory retrieval, such that working memory is purposefully steered to activate the kind of representations from long-term storage most needed at the moment (see Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2003).

The Self: Situated, Transactional, and Possible

The self holds a privileged status in information processing in that information that is irrelevant to the self is less likely to be noticed, scrutinized, assimilated, or used to guide social functioning (see Leary & Tangney, 2012 for an extensive coverage of self and identity). Yet self-defining information is subject to the same memory and inference processes described thus far. For example, although we have enduring beliefs about ourselves, we do not have “a” self-concept so much as we have context-sensitive working self-concepts. That is, different representations of self are more or less likely to be activated and pulled into working memory at any given moment. Variability in this continually shifting subset of self-knowledge is part of why we can view and experience ourselves quite differently, depending on the context; for example, myself playing with my young child versus making a formal professional presentation, or winning an award versus receiving sharp criticism. The situational variability in the self-concept is important because it influences social functioning, often in ways not immediately evident to the individual. Social perceptions of others, as well as appraisals of self-worth and self-efficacy, reflect currently active self-schemas.

Recent formulations go a step further, arguing that we must look to the transactional dynamics of people and their environments to discern stable, self-defining patterns. That is, people have stability within what is psychologically salient for them in particular contexts, but the characteristics of this stability may differ as the context changes (which may differ from the seemingly distinct features of those contexts). Differing contextual features activate distinctive networks of mental-emotional representations. Thus, stability in what we might call identity or personality must include situations and the if-then (situation-behavior) signatures that emerge from these transactions—a position quite at contrast with earlier, more person-focused views (Mischel & Shoda, 2008). The situated functioning and responsiveness of the self-concept move important assessment considerations away from global or trait-like conceptions to a contextually embedded approach to the “working self,” which tends to vary due to experience, the situation, or the events a person is facing (Nurius & Macy, 2012; Shoda & Smith, 2004).

We have also learned that the self-concept is not a catalogue of what “is” but rather contains a variety of self-perspectives. For example, in addition to our perceived actual selves, we maintain concepts of ideal and ought selves—conceptions against which we measure ourselves and grapple with discrepancies (Higgins, 1998). Self-conceptions bridge time and carry powerful influence; for example, the ways in which feared past selves and hoped-for future selves galvanize—positively or negatively—our attention and action. Cognitive representations of our future or possible selves, including goals, plans, aspirations, and fears, are often not well recognized by us but may be wielding substantial influence (Dunkel & Kerpelman, 2006; Oyserman & James, 2011). As reflections of social contexts and transactions, self-schemas developed in response to adversity, such as trauma and illness, and social injustices such as poverty and discrimination are not immutable, but they do manifest a kind of neural and psychophysiological embodiment of these formative factors.

Hot Cognitions and Interfaces With Emotions

Social cognition theory offers useful input for questions critical to practice such as where feeling states “come from,” what factors generate these feeling responses, and how any given feeling is expected to positively or negatively influence a client's functioning. Social cognition addresses how individuals interpret the stimulus they are responding to (like a facial expression) as well as their own physiological state (heart beating quickly, skin temperature rising) and then, based on the meaning that they give to these phenomena, assign an emotion label to themselves (“I am feeling very anxious”). An underlying premise is that although physiological arousal may occur with little or no cognitive involvement, emotions require a more active role by the individual in assigning personal meaning—which can lead to different emotional reactions to the same phenomena.

Evidence indicates that a closely interactive relationship between affective states and information strategies is central to understanding how emotion influences and is influenced by thinking, judgments, and behavior (Forgas & Smith, 2003). In addition to effects on what people think, affect also shapes how they think. For example, a positive mood facilitates more automatic but efficient, flexible, and confident information processing, whereas a negative mood triggers more deliberate, externally vigilant, and at times, ruminative processing style. Indeed, affective states have been found to have a broad-based effect on the ways that people interpret, evaluate, and respond to social information, such as learning, attention, recall, attributions, judgments, attitudes, self-perception, action readiness, and interpersonal behavior (Forgas, 2008). The term “hot cognition” conveys the many ways in which judgments, decisions, and so forth are often less coolly rational than “heated” by our motivations and emotions, and this heat is carried through our social cognitive processing.

Some emotion-related research has examined the process of interpretation in terms of cognitive appraisals, based on a view that appraisals serve an important mediational role in linking an individual's goals and beliefs with situational cognitive interpretations and emotional responses. This research is particularly relevant for social work practice because of its application to questions of coping under ambiguous and stressful conditions and how cognitive interpretations and emotional responses set the stage for subsequent action that may or may not result in effective coping outcomes (Nurius, 2000). Lazarus's (1991) model, for example, suggests that appraisals made of threatening circumstances yield distinct emotion sets which, in turn, predispose the individual to action proclivities (Roseman & Smith, 2001). To illustrate, a problematic situation appraised to be one's own fault is likely to stimulate guilt or shame and acquiescence or avoidance, but when others are seen to be accountable, it is likely to stimulate anger or indignation, fostering efforts toward punishment. Although much of emotional and appraisal processing is believed to occur automatically and outside fully conscious awareness, these processes can be brought under more deliberative focal attention to allow for more thorough analysis and reappraisal (Leahy, Tirch, & Napolitano, 2011). Importantly, knowledge about mechanisms linking emotions to both consciousness and unconsciousness is rapidly advancing in social cognition, informing specification as to the embodiment of emotional knowledge, the neural basis of interactions between emotion and cognition, and the ways that nonconscious emotional processes function (Barrett, Niedenthal, & Winkelman, 2005).

Social Cognitive Neuroscience

Integration of neuroscience in the study of relationships among the cognitive, affective, and neurophysiological dimensions of people interacting with the social environment has become increasingly sophisticated and has yielded compelling new insights. Ochsner and Lieberman (2001) note, for example, how neural systems mediate cognitive interactions of social psychological phenomena, relationships between impaired social cognitive capacities in producing disabilities such as autism, and the neural basis for a range of processes such as stereotyping, attitudes, and person perception (see also Lieberman, 2010; Striano & Reid, 2009). Especially promising are advances in illuminating the mechanisms undergirding relatively automatic, nonconscious processing, for example, in spontaneous social inferences (Todorov, Fiske, & Prentice, 2011) and in distilling how varied dimensions of social context are represented in the brain and exert influence over social judgments and action (Beer & Ochsner, 2006). Social cognitive neuroscience also offers a multilevel framework for specifying linkages between social and structural factors to patterns of construal and psychophysiological responding, yielding either resilient or compromised health statuses. Gaining a more precise, nuanced understanding of how to augment control over maladaptive patterns at these levels of processing may provide important new assessment and intervention options to the social work practitioner.


Part of the value of social cognition theory is its usefulness in connecting knowledge about human behavior in the social environment (under mundane as well as exceptional circumstances) with theory and strategies for personal change. Many problems in life are at least partly the result of the same processes that explain normal, adaptive patterns of functioning. The content of the predominant self- and social schemas for the depressed person and the happy person are likely to be substantially different. But the functional effects of their schemas, their patterned ways of drawing on their self- and social knowledge as they interact in differing contexts, and their role in shaping their and other's behavior stem from the same social cognitive processes. Social cognition is a body of theorizing and research that underlies models of learning and social communication, approaches to health promotion such as the health beliefs model, understandings of stress and coping, and some of the most widely used treatment strategies today, such as self-efficacy and collective efficacy interventions, cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapies, schema therapy, emotion management, and self-regulation strategies.

Future trends in social cognition research will include an increasing focus on naturalistic settings and questions of real-world concern. Complex questions of interest to social work—such as the development of human aggression, the social cognition of group and cultural dynamics, and the effects of information processing systems in mediating social conditions—are now at the forefront of investigation (Anderson & Huesman, 2003; Kitayama & Cohen, 2007; Shoda, 2004). Social cognition work is becoming increasingly multilevel, striving to capture processes of transaction between individual and social forces as well as dimensions such as the built environment and links between biological systems and social behavior. Examples of developing areas include the science of social identities and social influence, intergroup relations, the roles of history and culture in shaping social cognition, and how emotion and physiology affect social thinking and behavior. The future provides opportunity for social work to test the usefulness of findings in practice, to press for extension into heretofore neglected areas, and to actively participate in the generation and application of social cognition work in the service of social welfare.


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Further Reading

Overview of social cognitive theory and self-efficacy. http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/eff.html

The International Social Cognition Network. http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/sherman/iscon/

Resource guide to books on various aspects of social cognition. http://www.socialpsychologyarena.com/