Diederik A. Stapel
University of Groningen Willem Koomen
University of Amsterdam
Let's Not Forget the Past When We Go to the Future: On Our Knowledge of Knowledge Accessibility
Modern social psychology has witnessed several transformations of its subject matter. The past decades have witnessed the waxing and waning of research on cognitive dissonance and consistency theories (1950s and 1960s), and attribution research (1960s and 1970s). The latest—and perhaps most productive—transformation of social psychology's object of inquiry announced itself with the advent of the social cognition movement in the late 1970s. Philosophers of science, such as Kuhn, Lakatos, and Latour, have emphasized the ways in which scientific theories and practices are bounded by the social context in which they have been developed. Every so often, each field of science redefines and recategorizes its topics of inquiry. What is hot now was not so hot then. An advantage of the existence of fads and fashions in scientific inquiry is that each new trend stimulates a host of new research directions and methodologies. A potential disadvantage is that scientific trends define themselves not only by suggesting that some questions (“How do people process unexpected information?”) are more interesting than others (“How do people learn social norms and values?”), but also by implying that certain empirical findings are more interesting than others.
One of the aims of this chapter is to demonstrate that, at present in the domain of knowledge accessibility research, a bias may be detected. Knowledge accessibility research investigates when, how, and in what direction activated mental representations may affect memory and judgment (see Higgins, 1996; Sedikides & Skowronski, 1991). Within the current social cognition movement, knowledge accessibility research has been preoccupied primarily with understanding the impact of accessible knowledge on categorization and interpretation processes. Investigations of the effects of activated knowledge on other psychological processes, such as response generation and judgment construction, are relatively rare. Therefore, generalizations that are based on social-cognitive knowledge accessibility research are often overgeneralizations. More specifically, results from experiments designed to test the impact of a particular type of accessible information (i.e., traits) on a particular type of cognitive process (i.e., interpretation) guide theories about the impact of accessible information on impression formation in general (e.g., Sedikides & Skowronski, 1991).
Following both Gigerenzer's (1991) argument that scientists' tools and methods often shape their theories and Griffin and Ross' (1991) concept of “egocentric construal processes, ” we argue that researchers examining knowledge accessibility effects are not aware of the restrictions in their research designs and seem to be unable to make appropriate allowances for the possibility that other research perspectives may come to different conclusions than they do. In this chapter, we hope to show how different theoretical perspectives come to dramatically different conclusions by confronting the social cognition approach to knowledge accessibility effects with investigations of context effects in psychophysical, comparative, and social judgment.
A recurring theme in social psychology research is that a primary determinant of how people understand and evaluate new stimuli is their past knowledge (Sedikides & Skowronski, 1991). People understand the world by relating what they are currently experiencing to the knowledge they have previously accumulated. However, not all previous experiences or stored knowledge will affect the impression formation process to the same extent. Research on knowledge accessibility suggests that an important determinant of whether knowledge is used in the understanding and evaluation of social stimuli is the relative accessibility of that knowledge. How one understands and evaluates the world is, at least in part, a function of the kind of knowledge that is accessible during the impression formation process. Of course,