Curtis D. Hardin Terri D. Conley
University of California, Los Angeles
A Relational Approach to Cognition:
Shared Experience and Relationship Affirmation in Social Cognition
Social psychology is poised to realize the synthesis envisioned in the “The Sovereignty of Social Cognition” by the late Thomas Ostrom (1984), who defined social cognition as “the struggle to understand the interdependence between cognition and social behavior.” In so doing, Ostrom broke from contemporary definitions of social cognition, which in the 1960s and 1970s was defined as the study of cognition about social objects and since the early 1980s has been defined as the study of the cognitive bases of social perception and behavior (cf. Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1967). Although Ostrom celebrated the identification of cognitive foundations of social behavior, he lamented the lack of research on social foundations of cognition. However, it can no longer be said that the social bases of cognition have been ignored. Indeed the recent decade has witnessed a blossoming interest in how social relationships affect even very basic information processing (e.g., Baldwin & Sinclair, 1996; Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Higgins, 1992; Jost & Banaji, 1994; Leary, 1995; Markus & Kitayama 1991; Schwarz, 1994; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Tice, 1992).
We argue that pursuing theoretical integrations of cognitive and social activity will yield important new insights into the hallmark issues of social psychology, including attitudes, social perception, the self-concept, and stereotyping. To do so, we first identify in the history of social cognition research two fundamental human requirements—social connectedness and cognitive understanding—and argue that a full understanding of social-cognitive interdependence requires a renewed focus on how social interaction structures basic information processing. We propose that shared reality theory provides one such synthesis from its postulate that both relational and epistemic requirements are served by the interpersonal realization of shared experience (Hardin & Higgins, 1996). Moreover, research demonstrating the role of shared reality processes in the regulation of interpersonal behavior and individual cognition provides tentative promise for Ostrom's prescriptive charge for the social cognition endeavor.
Twisting through the history of research on social cognition, like the frayed strands of a double helix, is the observation of two great forces driving human behavior: One is the requirement to establish, affirm, and protect social relationships, and the other is the requirement to understand the self and its environments (inter alia., Asch, 1952; Festinger, 1954a; Freud, 1922/1989; Heider, 1958; Higgins, 1981a; James, 1890/1950; Lewin, 1931; Mead, 1934; Newcomb, 1953; Schachter, 1959; Sherif, 1936; Sullivan, 1953). Interestingly, for the most part, the contemporary literatures on the pursuit and consequences of the relational and epistemic needs have evolved independently. For example, contemporary social cognition research has been characterized by a near exclusive focus on epistemics (see Thompson, Naccarato, Parker, & Moskowitz, chap. 2, this volume, for a review)—that is, how the cognitive system enables individuals to understand and thereby adaptively navigate an informationally complex world (e.g., Bargh, 1996; Higgins & Bargh, 1987; Markus & Wurf, 1986; Stangor & Lange, 1994; Swann, 1990). Meanwhile, research on the negotiation and maintenance of social relationships has occurred on the self-described margins of mainstream social psychology (e.g., Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Collins, 1997; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Murray & Holmes, 1997). This was not always the case, however, for the American psychological tradition arose out of the modern conception of human nature, including the assumption that individual thought is a product of social activity (e.g., Dewey, 1922/1930; Freud, 1922/1989; James, 1890/1950; Marx & Engels, 1846/1970; Wittgenstein, 1953). Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, it