What is Social Cognition?

impatient wife with obnoxious husband

No way that’s his mom!

Social cognition is a sub-field within the larger discipline of social psychology and has been defined as “the study of mental processes involved in perceiving, attending to, remembering, thinking about, and making sense of the people in our social world” (Moscowitz, 2005, p.3). While some psychologists are content with analyzing only overt behavior, researchers in the field of social cognition prefer to dig deeper. Social behavior, from their perspective, is not directly determined by environmental factors that are external to the individual. Rather, it results from the internal cognitive processes which influence our interpretation of the social context. No social reality exists beyond that which we actively construct in our minds and it is this cognitive construction of social reality – our social cognition- that ultimately determines our behavior in social situations.

Building on the solid theoretical foundation of social psychology and imbued with additional concepts and research procedures from cognitive psychology, social cognition emerged as a distinct field of study in the 1970’s and quickly gained momentum. Today it occupies a position of dominance within the realm of social psychology. While it is true that social cognition shares many commonalities with social psychology, it can be distinguished by its narrower focus. Social psychology attempts to explain the broad social aspects of human experience – how individuals influence and are influenced by the presence of others as well as the social situations in which they find themselves.  On the other hand, social cognition researchers, while interested in many of the social phenomena studied by social psychologists, deal specifically with the mental processes that underlie such phenomena and mediate our responses to social input. [showmyads]

Social cognition is also similar to, but distinct from cognitive psychology. Theorists in both fields agree that an understanding of mental processes is essential for an accurate conceptualization of human responses. However, while cognitive psychologists focus primarily on the non-social world with its abundance of observable and objective elements, researchers of social cognition are concerned only with the social realm, complete with its many hidden and subjective features.

Based on the foregoing, social cognition could be defined simply as a cognitive approach to studying social experience. Among other things, researchers in this field study how people encode social information, how such information is mentally organized and stored, and how we use social knowledge to form opinions and make decisions regarding ourselves and others. The field seeks to provide answers to questions such as:

  • How do we form impressions of ourselves and others?
  • How do these impressions influence our relationships with others?
  • How do we determine the causes of our own behavior and that of others?
  • How do our goals, feelings and desires influence our memory of social events?
  • How do we mentally represent our social knowledge?

While social and cognitive psychology provided much of the raw material for the development of social cognition, the field also owes its unique identity to the contributions of Gestalt psychology, constructivism and the ‘information age.’


Moscowitz, G. B. (2005). Social cognition: Understanding self and others. New York: Guilford Press.

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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