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Summary: Social Cognition

Susan Fiske described social cognition as "how people think about other people and themselves and how they come to some kind of coherent understanding of each other." Cognitive dissonance theory led to the first great wave of social cognition research, although most of that research occurred in the 1950s and 1960s before the term social cognition was used.

Next came a focus on attribution theory. That is about "theories" people invent to explain behavior of other people and themselves. To make an attribution is to assign credit or blame for a behavior. Generally this means making a cause-effect analysis attributed to a person or a situation.

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to interpret one's own behavior as due to external circumstances (therefore easily forgiven). On the other hand, the behavior of other people is attributed to internal factors. The funda­mental attribution error is therefore self-serving, encouraging people to give others blame for behaviors they would forgive in themselves.

Person perception is a major category of social cognition research. In many cases, people form first impressions very quickly.

Stereotypes are applied within milli­seconds. They can be seen as a form of cognitive economy or shortcut, used in place of more time-consuming inter­pretations..

Snap judgments are affected by verbal descriptions. Asch found that the single word "warm" was very powerful in affecting first impressions. First impressions are also influenced by visual cues, particularly by attractiveness.

Ellen Berscheid and colleagues demonstrated a halo effect due to attractiveness. Attractive people are assumed to be smarter, healthier, more sociable, and to have other favorable traits, even those (like sensitive and bold) that seem to contradict each other.

In rare cases, beauty may lead to negative stereotypes. This was observed when a beautiful person portrayed a swindler, in courtroom situations.

Robert Rosenthal is famous for studies of expectancy, including self-fulfilling pro­phecy in social situations. One study showed randomly selected children leaped forward in ability during the school year if teachers expected them to, apparently because teachers changed their behaviors toward the students.

Rosenthal documented many other expectancy effects. In general, people who expect something to happen will help to make it happen.

Priming effects, which started in research on word associations, were carried over to social psychology. The Implicit Asso­ciation Test used rapid decision making to show when people had positive or negative associations with a group.

Social priming, also known as behavioral priming, occurs when an incidental stimulus (one that is in the environment but not necessarily noticed) influences later behaviors. For example, walking past a church might make a person quicker to recognize words about religion.

In 2011 two Dutch researchers were found to have falsified social priming studies. In an atmosphere of suspicion, many older studies were questioned.

Some of the classic social priming effects could not be replicated. Researchers in social cognition took immediate steps to guard against errors of data collection that produced disappearing effects.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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