Social cognition is the branch of social psychology that examines the way people interact with the social environment. This interaction includes processing information from the outside world, analyzing and interpreting this information, forming a judgment and finally choosing how to act in response.
Social cognition explores a wide diversity of topics. Some researchers examine the way people develop opinions and attitudes regarding social issues. Others investigate whether stereotypes twist an individual's judgment of other people, try to determine whether decisions are wise and rational, or look at how people build up impressions of themselves that tend to affect their self-esteem.
There are many ways in which social cognition can be of practical use in real life situations. Social cognition can demonstrate more efficient methods of learning and remembering school material. It also points out the obstacles that prevent people taking part in negotiations from reaching harmonious agreements. It can demonstrate how ethnic and social discrimination can be manifested by people who do not even realize they are doing it. Social cognition can also reveal the reasons for making poor financial decisions.
Arguably, social cognition has always had its place within the bigger frame of social psychology. However, there have been times when the importance of people's inner world has been neglected and even denied. During the first half of the 20th century the predominant trend in psychology was known as behaviorism, led by the influential American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990). Followers of this method of thinking focused on the effects of the reward-and-punishment method of provoking reaction.
During the second half of the 20th century, there was a dramatic change when mainstream psychologists focused their attention on the internal life of people and other living organisms, examining with way they perceived, analyzed and remembered the surrounding environment. A great number of theories describing mental processes were created by cognitive psychologists. Furthermore, social psychologists eagerly grasped these new theories using them as a means of exploring in detail the way social events were comprehended by individuals.
One of the main concepts of social cognitive research examines the building blocks of people's thoughts. Information about other individuals, social groups, objects and events is organized in a person's mind in the so-called schemata. This term represents a set of characteristics of a person, group, object or event stored in a knowledge structure. A common way to describe schemata is to compare them to webs of linked associations. When a certain concept is brought to mind these links activate the characteristic features of the concept.
The specific form of schemata has been discussed by many researchers. The prototype view describes schemata as webs of interconnected characteristics of an object. The exemplar view, on the other hand, posits that schemata rather represent typical examples of a concept. People make tremendous use of schemata in their social life. An example of such use can be a if a friend says that he or she went to a restaurant last night. The notions of all typical activities associated with going to a restaurant like looking at a menu, ordering, eating and paying are easily brought to mind. There is no need for these details to be specified as we already know them due to a special type of schema for a certain event called a script.
Bearing that in mind, there are certain negative effects caused by schemata, especially when recalling the past. For example, if a person is asked to remember the words wet, umbrella, coat, pouring and splash, it would be a relatively simple task. However, it is also quite probable that a person would mistakenly recall the word rain as well. This is due to the fact that all mentioned words are linked to rain through the associative network (the schema) of this concept.
Schemata can cause memory errors that are far more profound than the above example. Crucial details of a crime scene may be wrongly remembered by crime witnesses who tend to fit what actually happened into their schema of the event. Schemata also demonstrate the distortion of memory by stereotypes. If a doctor should be described as reserved, professional and prone to detail a person might also mistakenly recall the doctor being described as having a lack of empathy, provided that this characteristic fits the schema of a doctor.