University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
The Role of Theories in Mental Representations
and Their Use in Social Perception: A Theory-Based Approach
to Significant-Other Representations and Transference
Social cognition researchers have made substantial progress in elucidating the nature of mental representations and their role in social perception. A diverse array of perspectives on representational content and structure exists (for reviews, see Carlston & E.R. Smith, 1996; E.R. Smith, 1998; Wyer & Carlston, 1994), along with a rich understanding of how and when representations are likely to be activated and brought to bear on the tasks of perceiving and judging the social world (e.g., Higgins, 1996; Wyer & Srull, 1986). Considerable progress has also been made regarding the role of mental representations in guiding social behavior (e.g., Bargh, 1990, 1997). Where do we go from here?
This chapter examines the content, structure, and use of mental representations. It focuses on the idea, long recognized on a theoretical level yet often absent from empirical work, that perceivers' stored mental representations of the social world may include “theories”—that is, explanatory or causal forms of knowledge. If we have not been examining such knowledge all along, then what have we been examining? Even a quick mental survey would reveal that in much social-cognitive research, representations are treated as if they were composed, essentially, of lists of features or attributes. Further, their activation and use are thought to depend, in part, on the fit or overlap between the features of a stimulus and features associated with perceivers' representations (Bruner, 1957a; Higgins, 1996; see also Bargh, 1997; Hardin & Rothman, 1997). For instance, the activation and use of a racial stereotype to interpret a stimulus person are often thought to occur by virtue of the fit between racial features of the person and ones stored as part of a perceiver's stereotype representation. Or, observing a stimulus person engage in a helpful behavior, such as helping an elderly person across a street, is thought to elicit the use of a perceiver's representation of the trait helpful due to the overlap between a feature of the stimulus and one stored as part of the perceiver's trait representation.
In recent years, however, challenges to such a feature-based approach have arisen in the social-cognitive literature (e.g., Wittenbrink, Gist, & Hilton, 1997), paralleling trends in cognitive and developmental work (e.g., Murphy & Medin, 1985). These challenges argue that theories are basic to mental representations and their use. Unlike features, which are often treated as unrelated units of knowledge, theories are seen as embodied in explanatory relations linking bits of knowledge about an entity. To illustrate the potential value of theory-based views, this chapter presents a theory-based approach to mental representations of significant others. It is an approach that brings together theory-based ideas in the cognitive, developmental, and social-cognitive domains with the growing body of evidence for the role of significant-other representations in interpersonal perception and relations.
The role that representations of significant others play in interpersonal perception and relations reflects transference, originally a clinical notion (Freud, 1912/1958; Sullivan, 1953), but one that also has been conceptualized in social-cognitive terms (Andersen & Glassman, 1996). In these terms, transference refers to the phenomenon whereby something about a new person activates a perceiver's representation of a significant other, leading him or her to interpret and respond to the person in ways derived from prior experiences with the significant other. Applying theory-based ideas to research on significant-other representations and transference, the main thrust of the theory-based approach proposed in this chapter is that perceivers are especially likely to have theories stored about their significant others, which implies that the content and structure of significant-other representations involve such theories, and that these theories play an important role in the transference