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Chapter 3 covers the topic of social cognition, which is defined in the textbook as the study of how
information about people is processed and stored. Another way to characterize social cognition is that it
refers to cognitive processes as they relate to social behaviour. By cognitive processes, we include
attention, information processing, impression formation, and memory. Social cognition addresses such
questions as: How do we process information about other people? How do we store information about
people in our memory? How do we retrieve information about people from our memory? These are
complex and challenging questions, but social psychologists have begun to provide some answers.
The purpose of our supplementary material, as explained in our notes for Chapter 1, will be to clarify
or extend some of the concepts in the chapter and to provide additional examples, both from the laboratory
(experiments) and from real life (applications). We will organize the supplementary material in a manner
that parallels the chapters principal headings.
File: How Does the Mind Work
How Does the Mind Work?
The key concept in social cognition is schema. A schema is a cognitive structure that contains our
knowledge about a person, object, or event. Another, more everyday term for a schema is concept.
Schemas contain information about the key features of the object or category, as well as simple rules about
how the object or category operates. Your schema of dogs probably includes that they bark, are sociable
and loyal, can bite when angry or frightened, and wag their tails when they are happy.
The basic function of a schema is to categorize objects in ways that provide meaning and
predictability. When we encounter an object, we must decide what it is before we can behave effectively
toward it. Once we have categorized an object, we assume that the characteristics in our schema apply
to this object. So when we categorize an animal as a dog, we expect it to bark, be sociable and loyal,
and so on. In other words, schemas provide expectancies about what will happen or what an object will
be like. This aspect of schemas is sometimes referred to as going beyond the information given.
Chapter 3 describes a number of studies that showed how schemas can affect impressions and
memory. We want to describe another experiment, which nicely illustrated how schemas can influence the
processing of information about individuals. The study was conducted by Thomas Holtgraves, Thomas
Srull, and Daniel Socall and published in 1989. Participants read a fictional conversation between two
men. These men were described as businessmen. Some participants learned before reading the
conversation that one man (Robert) was the boss of a company, and the other man (Michael) was his
employee. Other participants learned before reading the conversation that the two men were equal in status
in the company. Thus, the schema of either boss/subordinate or co-workers was activated before
participants read the conversation. Two other groups of participants did not learn until after reading the
conversation that Robert was the boss or the two men were equals. That is, the schema of boss or co-
workers was not activated until after participants read the conversation.
Participants memory for information from the conversation was tested 2 days later. Those who
believed Robert to be the boss recalled more assertive comments and actions than did those who believed
the two men to be equals, but only when the schema was activated before reading the conversation. That is,
participants memory about the conversation was consistent with a schema that was activated before
exposure to the material, but not with a schema that was activated after exposure to the material.
Presumably, the schema in the before conditions influenced what participants noticed and/or how they
interpreted the mens comments.
Schemas are more likely to be used to interpret the world when they are highly accessible, whichmeans that they are easily and quickly brought to mind (activated). Schemas can be highly accessible for a
variety of reasons, including that they have been used recently and that they constitute aspects of the
environment that are important to the perceiver. These two reasons correspond to specific terms in social
cognition: priming and chronic accessibility.
Lets start with priming. Have you ever noticed that something can be on your mind all day?
Perhaps you are wearing a new sweater and you find yourself looking at everyones clothes throughout the
day. Or perhaps you had a fight with your girlfriend/boyfriend the previous evening, and you find yourself
noticing how many happy couples there seem to be at the mall, at the grocery store, and so on. In these
cases, an event or behaviour (wearing a new sweater; having a fight) activated the schemas of clothes or
romantic relationships, which then influenced what you noticed throughout the day. This process of one
event bringing to mind a schema that is subsequently used in other situations is called priming.
It is also the case that some schemas are more accessible, in general, than other schemas for a
particular individual. A woman might think of herself as having a good sense of humour and being funny,
and she might value this aspect of herself. In this case, she may also tend to notice whether or not other
people are funny. This would be an example of chronic accessibility the schema of funny is chronically
accessible for the woman across settings and targets. The textbook addresses the possibility that there are
cultural differences in chronically accessible schemas.
In social psychological research, one type of schema that has received a lot of attention is stereotypes,
which represent our schemas for social groups. Specifically, stereotypes reflect the characteristics that a
perceiver associates with a particular group. We all have stereotypes of occupational groups (e.g., police,
teachers), religious or ethnic groups (e.g., First Nations Peoples, French Canadians), and many other
categories (e.g., the elderly, overweight people). Stereotypes provide expectancies about how members of
the group will behave, thereby guiding our actions toward them. For example, if an individuals stereotype
of elderly peopl