Communication And Social Psychology Research Paper

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Human communication is both social and cognitive because it is a process by which individuals exchange information and influence one another through a common system of symbols and signs. Compared with the study of language more generally, the study of the psychology of language is relatively new, and, when it did emerge as a field in the middle of the twentieth century, more attention was paid to understanding the psychology of grammar than to understanding language use or communication per se. Moreover, what attention was paid to understanding communication reflected mostly a cognitive perspective rather than a social perspective. The social psychological perspective on communication, then, is a very recent development within the study of language.

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The social psychological perspective on communication complements the more purely cognitive perspective (Cherry 1957, Shannon and Weaver, 1949). The cognitive perspective treats communication skills much like language skills by identifying a set of procedures, mechanisms, and operations by which information is transmitted from some source to some recipient. The social psychology of communication emphasizes the fact that communication also involves social motives and has interpersonal consequences beyond information reception. From a social psycho-logical perspective, communication is a social action that shapes reality, and not just a device for trans-mitting information from one location to another. Communication is action (see Searle 1969), and action is ‘social’ in so far as its subjective meaning and/orientation takes other people into account. By the communicator and the audience taking each other into account, communication both creates new knowledge and constructs a shared reality (see Higgins 1992). The nature and functions of communication— what it is and what it does—reflect the fact that it is a social action.

From a social psychological perspective, communication is an interpersonal interaction, a game with interaction rules and social motives. The constraints on communication are not just the basic information to be transmitted or the information processing capacities of source and destination. There are, in addition, the social rules of appropriate communication, the social context of communication, and both what the communicator intends the message to do to the audience and what the audience infers about the communicator’s intentions. The social psychology of communication is also concerned with the social consequences of communication, including how communication influences audiences’ and communicators’ attitudes, impressions, attributions, and memory about the message topic. Since the 1950s, social psychological researchers have discovered several phenomena that reveal the different ways in which communication as a significant social action shapes the world in which we live.

1. Taking The Audience Into Account

Communicators do not simply encode some set of information and then transmit it to a destination. They choose how to formulate their message by taking the characteristics of the audience, including their audience’s situation, into account. When another person is the topic of their message, they will encode the same information about that target person differently depending on what they think is the audience’s attitude toward that person or what they think the audience already knows about that person, including what information they share in common with the audience. For example, people give different directions to a destination when talking to a ‘local’ than to a ‘foreigner’. Communicators will even convey different information at the same time to more than one audience when they have a different relationship with each audience, such as using expressions that will have a different meaning to an in-group member than to an out-group member (see Fleming 1994). Communicators also take the audience’s context into account, such as describing a target person differently de-pending on the context of other people from whom the audience must distinguish the target (e.g., Manis and Armstrong 1971; for a review, see Krauss and Fussell 1996).

When communicators take their audience into account in formulating their message, they are constructing a representation of the topic of the message that is shaped by their audience. This audience-shaped representation itself has effects beyond the original information to be transmitted. It can change communicators’ own knowledge and attitudes, including their own attitude toward themselves (i.e., their self-esteem) if they spontaneously communicated a favorable image of themselves to others. It has been found that communicators’ own evaluations of a target person, and what they remember about the target person’s behaviors, will change over time to match the evaluative tone of the message they communicated about that person weeks before, a message that was originally designed to take into account the audience’s positive or negative attitude toward the target person. Thus, what communicators end up saying about a target person in order to suit a specific social context ends up becoming what they believe about the target person after a period of time. This ‘saying is believing’ effect exemplifies how communication as a social action can shape people’s world (see, for example, Higgins 1992).

2. Taking The Communicator Into Account

Audiences also do not simply decode information transmitted by some source. They believe that the message was a social action. Thus, they infer that the communicator chose to formulate the message in a particular way and that this choice is significant. They infer, for example, that communicators tailor their message to suit the attitude of the audience, and adjust accordingly their judgments about what the communicators truly believe (for reviews, see Higgins 1992, Krauss and Fussell 1996).

Messages are intentional acts, and inferring the communicator’s intentions is critical to understanding the meaning of the message (see Grice 1975). A central assumption about how conversations should be conducted is that all information contributed by the participants during the conversation should be relevant to the goal of the conversation. When one participant in a conversation breaks this rule, it can create problems for the other participants. It has been suggested, for example, that the poor performance of participants in some decision-making studies could be because the experimenters in these studies broke this conversational rule of relevance by providing information to the participants when communicating to them that was not relevant to the participants’ decision task. If the participants assume that the experimenter is following the rule of relevance, they will use the irrelevant information the experimenter has communicated to them and perform poorly (see Schwarz 1994). In order to understand the full meaning of a message, audiences must understand not only what information is actually transmitted in the message, but also infer what meaning the message conveys given a particular communicator and particular context. The meaning of a message is influenced by the communicator’s characteristics because the audience uses these characteristics to draw inferences about which meaning of a word or phrase was intended by the communicator. For example, an audience would infer a different sport for the word ‘football’ depending on whether the communicator was known to be British or from the USA. By also taking the context of communication into account, audiences make different attributions about the communicator’s intentions in producing a message, which changes the meaning of the message (see Hilton 1995).

Because messages are intentional acts, they provide information about the communicator and not just information about the message topic. Information about the communicator, in turn, can influence the illocutionary force of a message—its perceived purpose and effectiveness as an action (see Searle 1969). The effectiveness of a persuasive message, for example, does not depend solely on the in-formativeness of its content, such as the quality of its arguments. It also depends on the characteristics of the communicator (e.g., perceived expertise, attractiveness) and the nature of the relationship between the communicator and the audience. Thus, both the meaning and the impact of a message are influenced by audiences’ taking the characteristics of the communicator and the context of communication into account.

3. Messages As Strategic Actions To Influence The Audience

The significance of messages and the responses of audiences to them are not restricted to their symbolic meaning. As social actions they can be used strategically to imply causality and generalizability or to signal relationships. They are socially important as well as meaningful. Thus, they have significance both as signals and as symbols. Recent research has shown that interpersonal language has a number of inference-mediating properties. This research is based on a model of interpersonal language by which an objective and quantitative analysis of the language used is possible, such as how abstract or concrete the message is (see Semin and Fiedler 1988).

Subtle and relatively small differences in the level of abstraction of a message convey differential inferences to audiences. For instance, systematic variations in abstraction level of a message lead audiences to draw different inferences as to whether the behaviors of a person are influenced by situational factors or due to his or her personality makeup. Concrete representations of events lead people to think that the behaviors of an actor were due to situational constraints, whereas depicting the same event abstractly leads people to think that the behaviors were due to the personality makeup of the actor.

Applications of these findings in communication contexts have shown the role that strategic language use plays in influencing the types of inferences audiences make. One instance is the transmission and maintenance of stereotypes. For instance, it has been shown that behaviors that are consistent with stereotypic expectations are communicated at a higher level of linguistic abstraction compared with behaviors that are inconsistent with expectations. When audiences receive such messages, one finds that expectancy-consistent messages lead to the conclusion that these behaviors were due to enduring personality factors. In contrast, unexpected behaviors are depicted with concrete language, suggesting that such behavior is situation-ally constrained and thus unlikely to be repeated. This effect has been shown to be mediated by the level of abstraction of the messages. Diverse research findings demonstrate that subtle and implicit properties of language, such as abstraction, are strategically used, albeit unconsciously, in the composition of messages with a view to influence audience inferences. More importantly, these subtle linguistic cues in messages have been shown to influence the audience as intended but without their knowledge.

4. Audience Responses To Messages As Signals Of Relationships

Just as communicators can influence their audience through strategic language use, audiences can respond to messages in ways that influence communicators. These responses can be verbal or nonverbal and they can be intended or unintended. One basic set of phenomena concerns the different ways in which audiences can influence communicators’ functioning by signaling their relationship to them (see Giles and Coupland 1991). If the members of a social group, for example, perceive their social identity to be threatened by how members of a different social group communicate with them, they might respond by displaying behaviors that accentuate the difference between the two groups, such as exaggerating their distinct accent or using expressions that are distinctly associated with their own group.

Communicative acts and styles, such as speech rate, pausal phenomena, utterance length, facial expressions, gaze, and so on, are used when responding to others’ communicative acts to accentuate differences (divergence) and reduce differences between groups (convergence). These are strategies by which individuals adapt to other people’s communicative behaviors toward them. When communicators respond to different people whose social status and education vary, and whose power and closeness relationships to them vary, they will modify their use of phonology, median word frequency (an index of formality), and other language features in order to signal similarity with whoever is their current communicative partner. In communicative interactions, both the communicator and the audience use verbal and nonverbal actions to manage the discourse, to signal and control the relationship, and serve other interpersonal goals (see Giles and Coupland 1991).

Research on the social psychology of communication has increased our understanding of the role of communication as social actions that influence both partners in the social interaction. Both communicators and audiences take each other into account in producing and comprehending the message, and in so doing change the meaning and significance of the message beyond its content per se. Both communicators and audiences use communicative acts to influence their communicative partner. These role-taking and social influence processes have consequences for communicators’ and audiences’ attitudes, attributions, and memories, and thus communicative acts shape people’s understanding of the world in which they live.

Because communication is a social action that shapes understanding, it concerns a critical motivation–cognition interface. Variables reflecting the motivation–cognition interface have received relatively little attention, however. For example, do ‘saying is believing’ effects depend on communicators’ being motivated to share reality with their audience? Are the consequences of message production on the communicator different depending on their motives for producing it, such as to transmit information, to make a good impression, or to entertain the audience? The social psychology of communication can make further contributions to understanding language use by studying more explicitly the role of social motives in communication. All self-regulation involves trade-offs, and thus communication must involve trade-offs among different motives. How the problems of trade-offs are solved and how the solutions influence the nature and consequences of communication are major questions for future research.


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