Social Perception and
The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it.—Francis Bacon, 1620.
Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it.—Henry Ford.
Imagine meeting someone for the first time. When you first set eyes on her, you would recognize her as being a person and a woman, and you would note certain facts about her—perhaps her height, build, and hair color, or the type of clothes she is wearing. You may also infer other facts about her—estimate her age and activities from her behavior, or guess where she grew up from her accent. In addition, you will probably make other, more subjective judgments about her—her personality, interests, attractiveness, intelligence, friendliness, and so on. Some of your judgments may be influenced by stereotypes that you already hold about different categories of people—about Southerners, overweight people, athletic types, or socialites. Even though you have only just met her, you will already have developed a set of expectations and opinions about her.
All of these types of perception and judgment fall in the realm of social cognition. Social cognition refers to our thought processes about other people, ourselves, and social situations—that is, how we understand and make sense of social stimuli. Social cognition includes the ways in which people gather social information, organize it, and interpret it (Kunda, 1999). It is intimately related to the topic of attitudes, for social perceptions, beliefs, and attributions comprise the cognitive components on which attitudes are based.
As a research area, social cognition experienced an explosion of activity starting about 1975 (Higgins & Bargh, 1987; Wyer & Srull, 1994), including the publication of new journals, handbooks, and influential textbooks; and by 1990 it had become the most heavily studied area in social psychology (Hamilton, Devine, & Ostrom, 1994). In her 1998 review chapter, Taylor stated, “Although the numbers are waning now, at one time, social cognition was believed to account for more than 85 percent of the submissions [to the leading social psychology journal]” (p. 72).
The first stage of social cognition is perception, the reception and organization of sensory information about people or social situations. Social perception, like our perception of any object or situation, has a number of important characteristics (Schneider, Hastorf, & Ellsworth, 1979). We can illustrate these characteristics by considering a concrete situation: You have just entered an office and you see another person seated behind a desk.