Social Cognition: What Is It?

Social cognition - what is it?

Social cognition is nothing more than the study of how we process information (Adolphs, 1999). This processing includes the way in which we encode, store and retrieve the information of the social situations we live in.

Currently, social cognition is the dominant model and approach in social psychology. It arises in opposition to pure behaviorism, which refused to contemplate the action of mental processes to explain behavior (Skinner, 1974).

Social cognition alludes to the way we think about others. In this sense, it is a very powerful tool for understanding social relationships. Through social cognition, we can understand the emotions, thoughts, intentions and social conduct of others. In social interactions, knowing what other people think and feel can be a huge advantage in being able to cope in this context.

Boy looking at papers on the wall

How does social cognition work?

We human beings do not approach situations as neutral observers, although many times we try to pretend that this is the case; we carry our wishes and expectations with us. These inclinations of ours affect what we see and remember.

In this way,  our senses receive information which is interpreted and analyzed. Later, these interpretations are contrasted with the information we keep in our memory.

However, this simple description is not exhaustive, as there are other factors, such as emotions, which also affect the process. Remember that thoughts affect emotions, but it is also  emotions that affect thoughts  (Damasio, 1994). For example, when we are in a good mood, the world is (or seems) a happier place. When we are well, we tend to perceive the present with more optimism, but we also look more positively at the past and the future.

How does social cognition develop?

Social cognition develops slowly (Fiske and Taylor, 1991). A process of trial and error follows  that is based on observation.  Direct experiences and exploration drive learning. However, social knowledge is very subjective. The interpretations we can make of a social event can be very different and sometimes erroneous.

Although we rely on mental structures that facilitate the processing and organization of information, sometimes these very useful structures can also betray us.

These structures or patterns affect the attention, coding, and retrieval of information, and can  cause the  self-fulfilling prophecy to occur.  It is a prediction which, once made, becomes the cause of the realization of the prediction (Merton, 1948).

On the other hand,  social knowledge is, in part, independent of other types of knowledge. It is therefore not true that people who rely on superior intellectual skills for solving problems also have superior skills for solving social problems. Problem solving skills can be learned or taught, apart from intellectual skills. For this reason, the improvement of intelligences, such as emotional or cultural ones, is very important.

Woman holding two masks in her hand

Adopt the perspective of others

One of the most useful models of social cognition is that of Robert Selman. Selman anticipated a theory on the ability to adopt the social perspective of others.

According to this author, taking the social perspective of others corresponds to the ability that gives us the power to understand ourselves and others as subjects, allowing us to react to our conduct from the point of view of others. Selman (1977) proposes five stages of development for this social perspective:

  • Phase 0: undifferentiated egocentric phase (from 3 to 6 years).  Up to around 6 years of age, children cannot make a clear distinction between their interpretation of a social situation and the point of view of others. They do not even conceive that their conception can be wrong.
  • Phase 1: phase of the subjective or differential perspective, or informative-social phase (from 6 to 8 years).  Children at this age develop an awareness that other people may have a different perspective. However, they have a poor understanding of the motivations behind other people’s views.
  • Phase 2: Adopting a self-reflective perspective and acquiring a mutual perspective (8 to 10 years).  Pre-teens at this stage take on the perspective of another individual. Pre-teens are already capable of differentiating the perspectives of others. They are also able to reflect on the motivations behind their own conduct by taking another person’s perspective.
  • Phase 3: phase of the mutual perspective or of acquiring the point of view of a third person (from 10 to 12 years).  Children can see their own perspectives, those of their peers, as well as those of a neutral third person. By taking the point of view of a third person, they can contemplate themselves as objects.
  • Phase 4: social and conventional phase, in which the deep individual perspective develops and within the social system (adolescence and adulthood) .  There are two aspects that make up the conception that adolescents develop about other people. First, they become aware that motives, actions, thoughts and feelings are modeled on the basis of psychological factors. Second, they begin to conceive of personality as a system of characteristics, beliefs, values ​​and attitudes with its own evolutionary history.
Man holding a photo in his hand

Two ways of understanding social cognition

Within psychology there are different ways of understanding social cognition. One of the most important emphasizes the social dimension of knowledge. According to this perspective, knowledge would have a socio-cultural origin, given that it is shared within the social group.

The main exponent of this idea is Moscovici (1988), who speaks  of  “social representations” as ideas, thoughts, images and knowledge that the members of the same community share.  Social representations have a double function: knowing reality to plan action and facilitate communication.

Another perspective of great impact is that of the United States (Lewin, 1977). This way of understanding social cognition is centered on the individual and his psychological processes According to this view, the individual constructs his own cognitive structures starting from the interactions with his physical and social context.

As we have seen,  social cognition is how we manage the large amount of social information  we receive every day. The stimuli and data we collect through the senses are analyzed and integrated into mental schemes that guide our thoughts and conduct on subsequent occasions.

These patterns, once formed, become difficult to change. For this reason, according to the phrase attributed to Albert Einstein, “it is easier to break an atom than a prejudice”. Our first impressions will be crucial, unless critical thinking is set in motion that helps us develop a more efficient social cognition adapted to the reality around us.


Adolphs, R (1999). Social cognition and the human brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3: 469-79.

Damasio, AR (1994). Descartes’s Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Picador.

Fiske, ST and Taylor SE (1991). Social Cognition. McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Lewin, K. (1997). Resolving social conflicts: Field theory in social science. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Merton, RK (1948). The self fulfilling prophecy. Antioch Review, 8, 195-206.

Moscovici, S. (1988). Notes towards a description of social representations. Journal of European Social Psychology, 18, 211–250.

Selman, RL, Jaquette, D. and Lavin, DR (1977). Interpersonal awareness in children: Toward an integration of developmental and clinical child psychology. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 47, 264–274.

Skinner, B. (1974). About Behaviorism. Barcelona: Drinking fountain.

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