PSYC 2310 Chapter Notes - Chapter 5: Counterfactual Thinking, Availability Heuristic, Mahatma Gandhi
Chapter 5 – Social Cognition
Automatic thinking – is a type of decision-making process that occurs at an unconscious or
automatic level and is entirely effortless and unintentional.
Heuristics – mental shortcuts that are often used to form judgements and make decisions.
Controlled or effortful thinking – thinking that is effortful, conscious, and intentional.
Social cognition – how people think about the social world, and in particular how people select,
interpret, and use information to make judgements about the world.
Intuition – is a decision- making shortcut in which we rely on our instinct instead of relying on
more objective information.
A study of 1,500 psychology midterms determined that you initial choice in a multiple
choice test isn’t always the right answer. Those who changed their answers from wrong
to right were 51% of the population.
Availability heuristic – is a mental shortcut in which people make a judgement based on how
easily they can bring something to mind.
People are more influenced by the salience of events than how often they occur.
Example: do you think there are more words that start with the letter k than words that
have k as the third letter? We believe that there are more words that start with the letter k
because it is easy for us to think of these words. It is much more difficult to count the
words that have a k as the third letter even though there are more.
People are biased by information that is easy to recall, vivid, well publicized, and recent.
Involves processing and use little cognitive effort. The downside of automatic processing
is that people sometimes make judgemental errors as a result of using heuristics.
Controlled cognitive processing reduces errors although it is a slower process.
The Impact of Past Experiences
Schemas – mental structures that organize our knowledge about the world and influence how we
interpret people and events.
Example: if your cousin owns a car that is very unreliable, your schemas for that kind of care
will be negative even if Consumer Reports Canada evaluates it as very reliable.
Schemas allow us to categorize information around us in an efficient manner.
Stereotypes are an example of schemas.
Person schemas – are beliefs about other people, their traits, and goals.
Self schemas – is our memory, inferences, and information about ourselves.
Role schemas – are behaviours that are expected of people in particular occupations or social
Event schemas – scripts that people have for well-known situations which help them prepare for
the expected sequence of events. Example: having steps that you follow when going to lecture.
Content-free schemas – are rules about processing information.
The Role of Unconscious Priming
Priming – increase accessibility to a given concept or schema due to a prior experience.
In one study, people were exposed to words flashing subliminally that related, in one
condition, to high performance, and in the other conditions to neutral concepts. People
who were exposed to words priming high performance later found more words in a word-
The Information Available
We often have much more information about certain outcomes than other outcomes, and
we mistakenly judge the likelihood of an event occurring on the amount of information
o We see acting as a lucrative profession because we receive considerable
information about the wealth of big stars, but receive virtually no information
about all the aspiring actors who are barely making ends meet.
In other cases, we receive incomplete information, which in turn can lead to biases in
Representativeness – is the tendency to perceive someone or something based on its similarity to
a typical case.
People tend to make judgements about similar objects based on their salient and
Example: Steve is described and then participants were asked if he was an airline pilot, a
librarian, or a physician. They found that people tend to ignore the probability of each of
these occupations in society and instead base their judgement in how representative Steve
is to the stereotype of a librarian.
Reflects people’s cognitive error in not taking into account the probability of outcomes
and being overly influenced by representativeness.
Base-rate fallacy – is an error in which people ignore the numerical frequency, or base rate, of an
event in estimating how likely it is to occur.
Example: explains why people are often nervous about dying in a plane crash but are rarely
concerned about dying in a car accident.
Anchoring and Adjustment
Anchoring and adjustment – is a mental shortcut in which people rely on an initial starting point
in making an estimate but then fail to adequately adjust from this anchor.
Example: in a study, some students were asked whether Ghandi died before or after age 140 and
other students were asked if he died before or after age 9. All students were then asked how old
Ghandi was when he died. Those who had been asked the first question, answered 67 years old
and those with the second question guess on average 50.
Counterfactual thinking – is the tendency to imagine alternative outcomes to various events.
The amount of delight or regret you feel depends on how easily you can imagine a
different outcome. When it’s easy to imagine a different outcome, you experience a
stronger emotional reaction to the outcome.
Example: bronze medal winners tend to be happier than silver medalists because they almost
didn’t receive a medal, whereas silver medalists can imagine a better outcome.
Counterfactual thinking explains why people who feel that they could have “undone” a
negative event experience more distress (ex: the death of a loved one or an injury).
People can use counterfactual thinking to make themselves feel better when they have
narrowly missed experiencing a negative outcome.
Errors Caused by Presentation
Contrast effect – is the relative difference in intensity between two stimuli and their effect on
each other. People’s beliefs about one thing are influence by what they have just seen or heard.
Example: a $70 sweater may not seem like a good deal but if you learn that the sweater was
reduced from $200, it may seem like a real bargain.