Social Cognition Research Paper

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Sociality is a hallmark of human functioning. Indeed, the survival and success of our evolutionary ancestors depended on their ability to form coordinated bands of interdependent actors (e.g., Leakey, 1978). The benefits of group living allowed a band to succeed where an individual might fail (e.g., Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981). Although our species has come a long way from the harsh and precarious conditions present during early hominid evolution, human beings continue to be utterly dependent on one another for their survival and wellbeing. It is therefore quite reasonable to assume that human cognitive and motivational tendencies were shaped by the demands of group living (e.g., Brewer, 1997; Seyfarth & Cheney, 1994). Some have claimed that our capacities for reasoning and our other higher mental functions may owe their very existence to the constraints imposed by sociality on human survival and reproductive success (Byrne, 2000). Our most fundamental concerns depend crucially on our ability to understand the characteristics, motivations, and intentions of others; according to Cummins (1998, p. 37), “the evolution of mind emerges as a strategic arms race in which the weaponry is ever-increasing mental capacity to represent and manipulate internal representations of the minds of others.” This capacity to understand the minds of others is so central to successful human functioning that when it is compromised, the consequences are often devastating (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1995). How the mind understands the social world within which it functions is therefore a matter of central importance in psychology. It is this question that is at the center of theory and research on social cognition.

Social cognition refers to the cognitive structures and processes that shape our understanding of social situations and that mediate our behavioral reactions to them. At its core, the fundamental assumption of social cognition research is the idea that internal mental representations of other persons and of social situations play a key causal role in shaping behavior. The central task of social cognition research is thus to provide a specification of the nature of these mental structures and the processes that operate on them. A simple, generic depiction of the theoretical space within which social cognition researchers work is provided in Figure 11.1. Stated at the most general level, a social cognition analysis incorporates a consideration of (a) the informational cues that are currently experienced in the social environment; (b) mental representations that are constructed on the basis of current or previous experience; (c) the ways these representations are manipulated and the processes through which they influence other aspects of attention and cognition; and (d) the decisions, judgments, intentions, and behaviors that result from the application of these processes. The distinction between representation and process is more a matter of convenience than it is a reflection of a clear theoretical dissociation between considerations of mental structure and mental process.

Social Cognition Research Paper

In fact, as we shall see, many social-cognitive theories consist of propositions that link representational assumptions with particular processing tendencies that are assumed to be inherent within the representational format.

In taking seriously the role of mental events in mediating social behavior, social cognition theorists part company from the radical behaviorists, who view the mind as a black box having little if any theoretical relevance to an understanding of the factors controlling and directing behavior. However, the form of mentalism embodied in contemporary social cognition research also parts company from the early structuralists, who took the data provided by introspection to be the primary phenomena of psychological inquiry. Indeed, one of the cornerstones of social cognition is the recognition that the mind may be largely unaware of what it is doing; quite commonly, social perceivers may have very little introspective access to the cognitive processes that give rise to their behavioral reactions (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). These metatheoretical commitments create some methodological challenges for social cognition researchers of social cognition. On one hand, it is assumed that mental events have central, causal importance in shaping social behavior. One the other hand, it is also assumed that people may not be able to provide accurate selfreports concerning the nature of these mental events. As a result, social-cognitive researchers have devoted considerable effort to the development and adaptation of methodologies for studying mental processes that do not rely upon introspection. Before commencing with our survey of socialcognitive theory and research, we begin with a brief consideration of the methodological underpinnings of this work.

The obvious difficulties of explicitly studying mental events without falling prey to the potential biases and limitations of self-report measures have led to innovations in both the measurement and manipulation of social-cognitive processes. Two broad classes of process measures that do not rely on introspection have been developed. The first class consists of chronometric techniques that measure the speed with which a task can be performed (for a review, see Fazio, 1990). Building on classic chronometric methods for analyzing mental processes (e.g., Donders, 1868; Sperling, 1960; Sternberg, 1966), these techniques bring the workings of the mind into the scientific sphere by focusing on a directly observable property of mental events (i.e., their duration). Through carefully constructed experimental situations, it becomes possible to use participants’response times to derive inferences about a number of theoretically important issues, such as determining the nature of mental associations (e.g., Bargh & Chartrand, 2000) and identifying the subsystems or component stages of a more general process (e.g., Lingle & Ostrom, 1979). The second class of process measures consists of techniques focusing on memory performance (for a review, see Srull, 1984). Through the study of aspects of performance such as omissions, intrusions, and the serial ordering of freely recalled material, or the error rates observed in recognition memory, inferences can be drawn concerning both mental structure and process (e.g., Jacoby, 1998; Srull, 1981). Techniques such as these do not require any insight on the part of participants into the workings of their own minds; moreover, they are unlikely to be influenced by concerns about social desirability that can often contaminate self-report data.

Another important methodological approach has involved the development of experimental manipulations that are designed either to activate or to interfere with hypothesized mental structures, processes, or both (for a review, see Bargh & Chartrand, 2000). For example, priming techniques can be used to study nonconscious biases in social perception (e.g., Bargh & Pietromonaco, 1982; Devine, 1989). In one version of this kind of research, general concepts (such as Blacks) are activated outside of perceivers’conscious awareness, and the consequences for social perception and memory are examined. If subsequent impressions of an ambiguous social target are more in line with the subliminally activated concept (e.g., more stereotypical of African Americans), then one can conclude that stereotypical associations can be activated and applied in a manner that is automatic and unintentional. Along similar lines, the imposition of secondary tasks can be used to study the efficiency or the resource dependency of the mental processes mediating social responses (e.g., Gilbert, Pelham, & Krull, 1988; Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen, 1994). Relatively automatic mental processes occur efficiently (i.e., they do not require much in the way of attentional resources for their successful deployment) and hence will not be disrupted by the imposition of a secondary task.This very brief methodological sampler is merely meant to offer a taste of the general spirit within which social cognition research is conducted. The creativity with which researchers have gone about mapping the workings of the social mind testifies to the possibility of approaching the subject with a respectable measure of scientific rigor and objectivity, unhampered by the limitations of introspective methods.

The study of the social mind inevitably proceeds from a set of (often implicit) assumptions about its fundamental character. The major theoretical precursors of contemporary social cognition research lie in the seminal research on social perception and attribution conducted by such pioneers as Asch (1946) and Heider (1958). Embodied within these historical approaches is aview of the human mind as largely rational and even—in its own naive way—scientific. Attributional models such as Heider’s were grounded in the assumption that perceivers seek out cues pertaining to issues such as the controllability, foreseeability, or desirability of others’ behavior; perceivers then use these cues to logically derive assumptions about their mental states and about the reasons for their observed behavior. Classic models of impression formation (e.g., Anderson, 1965) assumed that social perceivers ascertain the likelihood that various characteristicsortraitsapplyto a given target, and they then assess the favorableness of these traits, combining them into a composite impression in a manner dictated by familiar expectancy-value models of human judgment. Contemporary social-cognitive research calls this optimistic view of humans as rational actors into question and suggests a set of alternative metaphors.We mention several of these newer metaphors here, as a way to anticipate many of the major themes of the rest of this review.

  • Humans as automatons. Whereas classic socialpsychological theories emphasized the role of rational analysis and active reasoning in guiding human behavior, much of contemporary social cognition research has emphasized the role of automatic and implicit processes in shaping social conduct. This work certainly casts into doubt the assumption of pervasive rationality, and it suggests that in many (if not most) circumstances, we may be the slaves of mental processes that occur outside the realm of our ratiocinations.
  • Humans as motivated tacticians. Even when engaging in active thought, there is ample reason to believe that people seek out and use mental shortcuts rather than engage in a thorough and systematic analysis of relevant data. Because of the inherent limitations of our attentional capacity (Miller, 1956) and epistemic motivation (Simon, 1967), humans are likely to be quite strategic in allocating their mental resources to the tasks confronting them (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). A major theme of the research we review in this research paper concerns the specification of the conditions under which social cognition will be likely to be relatively more analytical versus superficial.
  • Humans as intuitive lawyers. Whereas an intuitive scientist would be expected to be a truth-seeker, objectively seeking and using data concerning the state of the social environment, an abundant research literature shows that social cognition actually is subject to a wide range of powerful motivational biases. Rather than seeking to know the world as it is, we often see the world in the way we want it to be (e.g., Kunda, 1990). Much as a lawyer manipulates the available facts in a manner that is most flattering to a preferred conclusion, social perceivers also often show a rather shameless partiality in their dealings with the evidence relevant to their judgments, impressions, and choices.
  • Humans as affect-driven agents. The historical metaphor of the rational actor leaves relatively little room for the world of emotions, moods, and other feeling-states that form the real-life context of all social thought and action. In recent years, the importance of affective states in influencing social cognition and social behavior has been undeniably established (e.g., Forgas, 2001). It has thus become clear that affect is of integral importance in shaping the character of social cognition. In the remainder of this research paper, we trace the developments that have led researchers toward new conceptions of the social mind.

Mental Representation: Structure  and Process

With the advent of powerful technologies for studying the functioning of the brain in vivo, there have been many important advances in our understanding of the neural basis of information processing (e.g., Gazzaniga, 2000). Nevertheless, there continues to be a sizable gap between our understanding of the low-level functioning of the central nervous system and the development of a satisfying theoretical account for the higher-order mental phenomena that are the focus of social cognitionresearch.Tofillthegap,theoristshavehypothesized the existence of mental structures such as schemas and associative networks that can provide a relatively parsimonious account of how information is organized and used to meet the demands of a complex social world.These hypothetical representational constructs are best thought of as metaphors that capture theoretically or empirically important properties of social information processing. Although in a literal sense the nervous system may not contain schemas or other sorts of hypothesized mental structures, such constructs can be scientifically useful to the extent that they capture some important essence of whatever structures or processes actually do exist within the neural architecture of the brain. Because researchers have been able to account for a range of empirical phenomena by reference to these kinds of mental structures— and, indeed, have used their understanding of such structures to generate novel empirical predictions about the phenomena of social cognition—their hypothetical status has not been a source of great tribulation. Nevertheless, as Smith (1998) has pointed out, the metaphors that researchers use to understand mental representation can have the undesirable side effect of blinding them to important—even fundamental—properties of the how the mind works. For this reason, it is important to be cognizant of the background assumptions that underlie any particular representational model and to reevaluate these assumptions periodically.

Before considering the most prominent models of mental representation (and many of their built-in assumptions), we can begin by summarizing some of the common ground that is shared by different theoretical approaches. First, all of the various theoretical approaches are in agreement that our subjective understanding of the social world consists of some sort of organized representations, and that these representations, whatevertheirnature,aredefinitelynotmerelyveridicalorobjective renderings of reality. These representations are filtered through the lens of each individual perceiver’s personality, motivations, knowledge, and attitudes. As such, mental representations are both more and less than a photographic record of the social world. They are less than a photographic record because they may fail to incorporate many aspects of the experienced world. Some features of the informational environment are selected for attention and subsequent processing, and these features are likely to be incorporated into mental representations of the relevant persons and events. However, many other features are neglectedandwillconsequentlyfailtobeincluded. On the other hand, the representations that are formed are often more than a photographic record: They may go beyond the available data and incorporate aspects that were never directly experienced—that is, perceivers may generate inferences about otherwise unspecified characteristics of social targets and then incorporate these inferences within their mental representations; indeed, they may subsequently be unable to distinguish between actual and inferred features.These features of mental representation make it clear why it has assumed the central role in social cognition research: It is impossible to know what the person’s mental representation will consist of simply by examining the stimulus input. After a representation has been formed, it (and not the source information from which it was originally derived) will be the crucial determinant of observed reactions (e.g., Lingle & Ostrom, 1979; Srull & Wyer, 1983).

A second universal assumption regarding mental representation is the notion that new representations are inevitably formed by referencing memory for relevant prior experiences and knowledge. It is quite obvious that we would be hopelessly disoriented and quickly incapacitated if we had to treat every stimulus that we encounter as a novel phenomenon about which no preconceptions are available. Instead, we rely on our memories to determine such crucially important matters as how to interpret the meaning of different objects and events and how to allocate our attention to different aspects of the social environment. As such, our experience of the present is always inexorably linked to past experiences, as they are represented in memory. Clearly, whatever theoretical choices one might make in accounting for the nature of mental representation, an understanding of the nature and determinants of social memory will be absolutely central to any complete account of the dynamics of social cognition.

In an especially comprehensive and insightful review of the models of mental representation that have been employed by social psychologists, Smith (1998) identified four major classes of hypothesized representational mechanisms: associative networks, schemas, exemplars, and distributed (PDP) models. In the next sections, we review each of these major approaches, highlighting their key assumptions and documenting the major phenomena that each approach has succeeded in illuminating.

Associative Network Models

The intellectual roots of associative network models lie in British empiricism (especially Locke and Hume), with its emphasis on the learning of simple associations between sensations as the foundation from which all mental capacities are presumed to arise. The associative network approach assumes that mental representations consist of nodes of information that are linked together in meaningful ways (e.g., Wyer & Carlston, 1994). For example, a mental representation of a person named George could consist of various concepts that are associated with him, such as personality traits, occupational roles, physical appearance, and so on. Each attribute would constitute one node, and each node would be connected to a central organizing node via links. The strength of these links is hypothesized to vary; if certain attributes were especially strongly associated with George, for example, then the links connecting these attributes to the central one would be especially strong ones. The structural assumptions of this approach could thus hardly be simpler: Representations consist simply of nodes that are interconnected via links that vary in strength.

The central process that is assumed to operate on this type of representational structure is the spreading of activation. Each of the nodes in a network can vary in its degree of activation. When activation levels are minimal, the information contained in a node is essentially dormant in long-term memory, exercising no influence over the ongoing course of social cognition. However, when the level of activation rises above a critical threshold, the information contained in the node is assumed to enter working memory and to begin to influence ongoing cognition. For example, if our hypothetical friend George were suddenly encountered on the street, the George node in longterm memory would be activated and thereby brought into working memory. It is important that the activation that is infused into the central George node is assumed to spread along the available links to connected concepts, with more activation flowing along the stronger links. Whenever this activation is sufficiently high, the connected links will also enter working memory. Although there are variants on these assumptions, this brief summary provides a reasonable description of the core ideas of the associative network models.

The assumptions of the associative network models have been used to illuminate a wide variety of social-cognitive phenomena. To provide a representative sample, in this research paper we focus on three domains in which such models have been influential: attitudes, stereotypes, and memory for expectancy-relevant material. Fazio (1986) proposed a model of attitude structure that follows from the principles of the associative network models. In his view, an attitude consists of a simple associative structure: a node representing the attitude object, an evaluative node, and a link connecting the two nodes. Of critical importance is the strength of the connecting link. For strong attitudes, the link between the two nodes will be very strong, and any time the node representing the attitude object gets activated, the activation will be likely to spread to the evaluative node, thereby activating the associated attitude. Weak attitudes, however, will tend not to be automatically activated in this way, because the link connecting the attitude object to the evaluation is not likely to conduct enough activation to the evaluation node when the attitude object node gets activated. On the basis of this set of assumptions, Fazio was able to construct a compelling model of the determinants of attitudebehavior consistency. When attitudes are highly accessible (i.e., when the link between the attitude object and the evaluative node is strong), encountering the attitude object is likely to be sufficient to activate the attitude. After it is brought into working memory, the activated attitude can influence the ongoing stream of information processing by biasing the process of interpreting the subjective meaning and perceived behavioral affordances of the immediate situation. But none of this will happen if the attitude is not sufficiently accessible.

Some prominent models of stereotyping also assume the operation of an associative network structure (e.g., Devine, 1989; Dovidio, Evans, & Tyler, 1986). From this perspective, stereotypes consist of a central node representing a particular social group (e.g., elderly people) that is linked to various concepts that are assumed to characterize group members (e.g., slow, forgetful). When a member of the relevant category is encountered, activation can spread along the links from the central identity node to the associated stereotypical concepts.After these concepts enter working memory, they can influence subsequent impressions and reactions. One especially influential example is a study by Devine (1989). In her experiment, concepts that are part of the African American stereotype were activated (via a subliminal priming procedure). It is important that none of these concepts dealt with the concept of hostility. However, because hostility is assumed to be part of the cultural stereotype of African Americans, Devine assumed that activating other parts of the stereotype would also result in the activation of the concept of hostility, through the spread of activation. In line with this assumption, it was found that priming the African American stereotype resulted in elevated perceptions of hostility on the part of a subsequently encountered, ambiguous target. This finding fits with the assumption that after a sufficient level of activation reached the hostility node (by traversing the links connecting it to the rest of the associative network), this concept entered working memory and influenced subsequent impressions. Devine argued that these associations are part of culturally ingrained belief systems, and even when people do not consciously endorse the relevant belief (e.g., even when they do not believe that African Americans are hostile), they are still prone to being influenced by the culturally learned association.

Perhaps the most extensive development of associative network models by social cognition researchers has occurred as part of efforts to understand the impact of expectancies on social memory (e.g., Hastie, 1980; Srull, 1981; Wyer & Srull, 1989). Researchers working in this tradition have attempted to specify the factors that determine both the strength and the types of links that form among activated pieces of information, and they have also developed models addressing how these associative structures are used in the process of memory retrieval. In the typical experiment, participants learn some initial facts about a particular target that establish a general expectancy about him or her (e.g., Tina is smart, intellectual, well-educated, etc.). After an expectancy has been induced, participants then read more detailed descriptions of the target’s behavior. These descriptions contain three classes of behaviors: those that are consistent, inconsistent, and irrelevant to the general expectancy about the target. When a consistent behavior is encountered (e.g., won the citywide chess tournament), it is assumed to be linked directly to the central concept (Tina) by a relatively strong node, because it fits with preconceptions about this target quite well. However, when an inconsistent behavior is encountered (e.g., got confused trying to figure out the subway system), it is assumed to be linked to the central concept in a more tenuous way because it does not really fit with the general image of the target. However, the incongruity embodied in the inconsistent behavior is assumed to provoke efforts to resolve the confusion by thinking about how the inconsistent behavior might make sense in light of other known facts. This triggers the formation of inter-item associations among the different behavior nodes. Thus, although inconsistent behaviors are likely to be less strongly linked to the central person concept than are consistent behaviors, the inconsistent behaviors are actually more likely to be linked to a variety of other behavior nodes.As a result, the inconsistent behaviors tend to be more memorable on average because they tend to have more associative links with other items, producing a greater number of pathways through which activation can spread into them and draw them into working memory.

We have presented only the most general statement of how associative network models have been applied in the domain of social memory. Specific theoretical approaches have been much more elaborate in their assumptions—although they still share the key core assumptions that we have outlined. This general approach has been used to predict a wide and impressive array of empirical phenomena concerning social memory, including the serial order of information retrieval in free recall (e.g., Srull, 1981) and the influence of different processing goals and levels of attentional capacity on the probability of recalling inconsistent versus consistent information (e.g., Srull, Lichtenstein, & Rothbart, 1983; for a comprehensive review, see Wyer & Srull, 1989). Research in these and several other topic areas confirm the explanatory power of the relatively simple assumptions embodied in the associative network approach.


A rather different view of the nature of human understanding emerged in Continental philosophy (particularly the ideas of Kant). From this perspective, simple associations are inadequate to account for the complexity of human cognition. Instead, it is assumed that knowledge is organized into more elaborately structured conceptual representations. This approach to mental representation is epitomized in schema theories.

Originally introduced prominently into psychology by Bartlett (1932), schema theories focus on the role played by generic knowledge structures that organize a person’s understanding of a particular domain. A schema can be thought of as a subjective theory (Markus & Zajonc, 1985) that is formulated to account for the generalities of one’s experience. The elements of the schema are typically thought to be organized by more than simple association. For example, spatial, temporal, logical, and causal relations constrain and provide coherence to the schematic structure. To take a simple example, a face schema consists not only of a set of elements that are associated with faces (e.g., eyes, nose, mouth), but also of rules about the spatial relations among these elements. This general understanding of what faces are like is assumed to have been abstracted from experience with numerous specific faces over time. In addition to this inductive pathway to schema formation, it is often assumed that schemas can be learned in a more top-down manner. For example, most schoolchildren could, one hopes, articulate a rather detailed mammal schema, although they have most likely not induced its elements by observing particular instances. Instead, they have learned directly what the core elements of the schema are and how these elements are related to one another.

The elements contained in a schema often function like variables that can take a variety of values, provided that they adhere to the fundamental constraints of the schema. For example, there is a range of acceptable colors and shapes that eyes can take, but they must invariably be located above the nose, contain a pupil and an iris, and so on. This observation points to the fundamental function of schemas: They serve as templates for understanding experience by providing preorganized, general-purpose understandings that can be adapted to the particulars of the current situation via instantiation. It is assumed that schemas will be activated spontaneously in situations in which they are relevant, and that this activation occurs in an all-or-none fashion. Thus, unlike the associative network models (in which some nodes in a network can be active while others are not), schema models assume that if any part of the schema has been activated, then the rest of the schema will also be activated.

Schemas are thought to fulfill a variety of functions (for a review, see Bodenhausen, 1992). Most notably, they provide a basis for making inferences about unspecified elements of a stimulus or situation, and they can guide the interpretation of ambiguous features as well. Activated schemas also tend to guide the processes of perception and memory toward information that is relevant to the particular schema. One famous demonstration of the operation of schemas was provided by Bransford and Franks (1971), who showed that memory for ambiguous verbal stimuli (e.g., the notes were sour because the seam was split) was substantially enhanced when a relevant schema was activated that would allow for the disambiguation of the sentence (in this example, bagpipe). As Bartlett (1932) emphasized in his seminal writings, schemas also serve an important function in facilitating the reconstruction of the past. Schematic inferences undoubtedly do contribute to our memories for past experiences in important ways.

In many situations, competing schemas may be potentially applicable, and the understanding one gains of the situation may be substantially altered depending upon which schema is activated to parse the situation. Consider the famous case of Kitty Genovese, a New York resident who was brutally murdered in 1964. After observing Ms. Genovese being chased, screaming, by an unknown man, many witnesses failed to activate and apply the correct schema (i.e., homicidal maniac pursuing victim) and instead applied a quite mistaken one (e.g., teenagers engaging in horseplay). The failure of other bystanders to take action only served to underscore the plausibility of the erroneous interpretation. Clearly, the meaning of observed behavior can take on a very different meaning—and obliges very different behavioral reactions—depending upon which schema is invoked. Research by Shotland and Straw (1976) subsequently showed that when people observe an ambiguous situation in which a man is harassing a woman on the street, they often assume by default that it is a lover’s quarrel and fail to take any steps to help the woman. Only when this schema was rendered inapplicable (by the woman’s exclaiming, “I don’t know you!”) did people perceive the situation as one in which they should intervene. Research such as this underscores the importance of understanding the conditions under which particular schemas will be applied.

Sometimes a relevant schema is activated because it fits the current situation unambiguously. But when there is any ambiguity and competing schemas can each afford some degree of fit to the situation, then the schema that is applied is likely to be the one that most accessible (Bruner, 1957). Accessibility, in turn, is a function of relevance of the contending schemas to the perceiver’s chronically and momentarily active goals, as well as the recency and frequency with which each of the competing schemas has been used. As such, schemas that are goal-relevant or that have been recently or frequently used will be much more likely to be applied. Dodge (1993) has shown, for example, that some boys have a chronically accessible schema for parsing social interactions, in which they assume that the behavior of others toward them is motivated by hostile intentions and disrespect. When confronted with ambiguous behavior, they consistently assume the worst. These schema-based impressions then lead to hostile reactions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these same boys have a tendency to show poor social adjustment and are at higher risk for delinquency. In addition to dispositional biases in the accessibility of schemas, situational factors can prompt certain schemas to become more accessible. The expansive literature on priming effects is built on the realization that schemas that have been activated in unrelated contexts may continue to exert an influence on social cognition because their previous use has rendered them momentarily accessible (e.g., Higgins, 1996).

Schema theory has been applied in a wide variety of topical domains. One domain in which schematic models have been especially influential is gender. Bem (1981) proposed a gender schema theory, which asserts that cultural conventions regarding gender become a sort of lens through which perceptions of others are filtered. Bem (1993, p. 154) explains that the gender-schematic person “has a readiness to superimpose gender-based classification on every heterogeneous collection of human possibilities that presents itself.” In one of the most well-known studies of this phenomenon, Bem (1981) first identified individuals who were or were not gender schematic (i.e., based on their sex-role attitudes, they either did or did not appear to possess an internalized schema for gender appropriateness that was consistent with prevailing cultural conventions). Then she presented them with lists of concepts (animals, verbs, clothing) to learn, in a randomly mixed order. An important aspect of this study was that some of the concepts were pretested as being conventionally masculine (e.g., gorilla, hurling, trousers), some were conventionally feminine (e.g., butterfly, blushing, bikini), and some had no gender connotations (e.g., ant, stepping, sweater). The order in which these concepts were recalled in a memory task revealed that gender-schematic individuals were far more likely than were aschematic persons to cluster the concepts together in terms of their gender connotations, consistent with the idea that a gender schema guided the way the information was interpreted and organized in the minds of the gender-schematic participants.

Gender is but one of many domains in which the schema construct has been invoked to account for the regularities of social cognition. Person schemas, event schemas, self schemas, role schemas, and many others have been proposed (for a review, see Fiske & Taylor, 1991). The appeal of schema theory as opposed to associative network models of mental representation appears to lie in the recognition that the stimuli of the social world are often quite complex, and the assumptions of structured organization contained within schema models seems more appropriate for capturing this complexity, compared to the comparatively simple structural assumptions underlying network models. Moreover, the emphasis of schema approaches on processes of selective attention and organization of social information has an undeniable resonance with many phenomena of long-standing interest to social cognition researchers. Nevertheless, schematic models have been criticized as being too loose and theoretically underspecified (e.g., Alba & Hasher, 1983; Fiske & Linville, 1980). In addition, newer approaches to mental representation have been proposed that can account for many if not all of the same phenomena covered by schema theory, but with a much greater degree of theoretical specificity. We turn now to one of these alternatives to schema theory—namely, exemplar models.


Generic mechanisms for mental representation (e.g., schemas) assume that people forge abstract or prototypical models of reality by inducing generalities across similar, particular instances. A major alternative to this view was provided by exemplar models (e.g., Smith & Zárate, 1992), which hold that social cognition is based on specific representations of individual instances. Instead of relying on precomputed generalizations, perceivers are assumed to retrieve and use sets of prior relevant and specific experiences to guide their social information processing. Consider, for example, how the category elderly people might be represented using the various mechanisms that have been discussed so far. In an associative network, various attributes would be assumed to be linked to the generic concept elderly people, with varying degrees of strength. In a schematic model, the same kinds of attributes would be assumed to be embedded within a more elaborate conceptual model, in which causal and other kinds of constraints provide a more integrated but still very generic structure. In the exemplar model, it is assumed that there is no abstract or generic elderly people representation at all. Instead, there would be a multitude of specific elderly persons (e.g., Grandma, the kindly pharmacist, the doddering Senator, etc.), each represented in terms of how they were perceived or experienced by the individual. If the situation requires a person to make general judgments about elderly people, then he or she will retrieve relevant exemplars at that time and render judgments based on the average features of these momentarily activated exemplars.

This example conveys several important assumptions of the exemplar approach. First, it assumes that multiple exemplars can be activated in parallel at the same time. The likelihood that any given exemplar will be activated depends on the degree of its similarity to the current retrieval cues. The most similar exemplars are the ones that tend to get activated. Upon activation, the entire set of exemplars can then influence judgments and behavioral reactions. The assumption of parallel processing is an important characteristic of the exemplar approach. During retrieval of exemplars, many similar instances tend to be retrieved simultaneously; when an individual makes generalizations about a concept or stimulus, multiple, simultaneously active exemplars enter into the judgment (with their implications being aggregated into a general summary). Exemplar models thus can produce and account for generic judgments, just as schematic models can, and they can also account for patterns of selective attention and interpretation that were previously regarded as the hallmark of schematic processing. As soon as a set of exemplars is activated, it can bias the ongoing stream of information processing, just as a schema is assumed to do. However, exemplar models are substantially more flexible than are schema models, because exemplar models assume that different subsets of exemplars will be activated in different contexts, depending on the particular retrieval cues that are most salient in each context. Whereas schemas have a fixed or static quality and are assumed to be activated in an all-or-none fashion, exemplar retrieval can be tuned very flexibly to the immediate situational context. Further, the specific exemplars that are retrieved depend partly on recency and chronicity of activation. Thus, a more recently encountered elderly person would be more likely to be recruited into our summary representation of elderly people than would a more temporally distant one. Inasmuch as exemplar models can account for many of the same phenomena as can other representational formats, yet offer a strikingly greater degree of flexibility, they have considerable theoretical appeal.

Exemplar models are of relatively recent vintage, coming to prominence within social psychology only in the last decade or so; there are therefore few examples of substantive topics that have been shaped and guided by the assumptions of this representational mechanism. One case in which such models have taken on particular prominence is the study of perceptions of variability versus homogeneity in social groups (e.g., Linville, Fischer, & Salovey, 1989). Exemplar models provide a very natural way for thinking about how people understand and estimate group variability. By simply calling to mind a relevant set of exemplars, the degree of variability can be gauged directly by making across-exemplar comparisons. Research findings confirm that exemplar-based models are better able to account for perceptions of group variability than can models relying on prototypic or generic representations of groups (such as schemas; e.g., Smith & Zárate, 1990). However, many researchers have concluded that the most sensible assumption about the mental representation of social groups is that both specific exemplars and more abstract summaries are important components of such representations (e.g., Hamilton & Sherman, 1994; Park & Judd, 1990). Various ideas have been proposed concerning the relative prevalence and importance of each type of representation. For example, Sherman (1996) proposed that when representations of groups are initially being formed, they tend to be predominantly exemplar-based—but over time, more abstract and stable representations emerge. Park, Judd, and Ryan (1991) proposed that representations of groups to which one oneself belongs (i.e., in-groups) tend to contain more information about specific exemplars, whereas representations of out-groups tend to consist mainly of generalizations (see also Sherman, Klein, Laskey, & Wyer, 1998). Hybrid representational models such as these provide even more theoretical flexibility because they can account for both the flexibility of social cognition that is emphasized in the exemplar approach and the stability (sometimes even rigidity) of social cognition that is emphasized in models relying on more generic forms of representation such as schemas.

Distributed Memory Models

As Smith (1998) notes, one potentially important distinction between exemplar models and earlier approaches to representational mechanisms lies in the fact that the schema and associative network approaches suggest the existence of a discrete, stable, enduring cognitive entity—a thing that is stored, accessed, used, and stored away again. In contrast, the exemplar approach suggests the dynamic construction of representations on the spot, depending on which particular exemplars happen to get recruited for processing in a particular context. After such a representation is formed from its constituent exemplars, it does not remain as a stable entity; rather, it is used and then deconstructed back into its underlying elements, which may never come together in quite the same way again. From this perspective, exemplar-based representations are more like a transitory state than like an enduring entity. This idea is taken even further in the latest representational mechanism to catch the fancy of socialcognitive researchers: parallel distributed memory (often called PDP) models.

Based on models of distributed cognition developed by cognitive psychologists, this approach to mental representation has been developed in a rather elaborate manner. An excellent summary geared toward social-cognitive researchers was provided by Smith (1996). A detailed presentation of the assumptions of this approach is beyond the scope of this review, but a good general sense for the ideas embodied in this way of thinking is provided by a simple analogy used by Smith (1998). In distributed representations, a concept is represented as a pattern of activation across a set of low-level processing units, in much the same way that a television screen image arises from a pattern of electrical activity occurring across a set of pixels. Any individual pixel does not convey meaningful information, but a very complex and richly meaningful representation can emerge from the pattern created by the activation’s occurring across multiple pixels.

Moreover, just as with the pixels in a television screen, the same processing units can be involved in numerous, very different representations; meaning never resides in the processing units per se, but instead emerges from the overall pattern of their activity. According to this view, representations are clearly momentary states rather than enduring entities. In fact, whereas the other representational approaches make a distinction between representational structures and the processes that operate on these structures, such a distinction is meaningless in the PDPapproach because the process of activation itself is the representation from this perspective. According to the PDP approach, representations are not stored and retrieved; instead, they are constructed and (approximately) reconstructed based on the relevant input cues.

Extremely new to social psychologists, distributedmemory mechanisms have not yet won widespread application. Nevertheless, interest in their theoretical potential is growing, and PDP-based accounts for a diverse range of phenomena such as attribution, cognitive dissonance, and person perception have begun to appear (e.g., Kashima,Woolcock, & Kashima, 2000; Schulz & Lepper, 1996; Smith & DeCoster, 1998; Van Overwalle, 1998). As Smith (1998) describes in careful detail, the PDP approach can provide an impressive degree of theoretical coherence because it can account for virtually all of the phenomena previously explained by associative network, schema, and exemplar models. Ultimately, Smith makes a convincing case that these alternative versions of mental representation are not really competitors, but instead are complementary windows, each with its own particular theoretical usefulness.

Automatic and Controlled Processes in Social Cognition

A great deal of social cognition theory and research is concerned with questions about the degree to which social information processing involves active, conscious analysis of the social environment. Historical models of person perception and attribution regarded the perceiver as operating as a “lay scientist” (e.g., Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1967), examining evidence and reasoning about its logical implications; research in this tradition was largely mute, however, with respect to whether these putative mental processes involved the conscious application of deductive principles or processes of a more preconscious variety. As Gilbert (1998) observes, it is quite possible for a mental system to follow a reasoning algorithm without requiring that the conscious mind know or consciously apply the relevant principles. Mental processes that do not involve active, conscious ratiocination have come to be called automatic or implicit social cognition and have been the subject of a massive amount of recent research.

The contrast between conscious, effortful, controlled mental processes on one hand and unconscious, automatic ones on the other became a prominent issue in cognitive psychology largely due to influential papers by Posner and Snyder (1974), Shiffrin and Schneider (1977), and Hasher and Zacks (1979), yet there is quite a history of interest in the extent to which the mind might be operating in ways unknown to the conscious self. For example, researchers interested in human performance have long been interested in the processes involved in skill acquisition, whereby an initially novel task that requires considerable effort and attention becomes relatively automatic with practice (e.g., Fitts & Posner, 1967).After they become automated, skills can be triggered and used without much involvement of the conscious mind. In a different vein, psychoanalytically oriented researchers have been interested in how unconscious motivations might shape processes of perception and cognition (e.g., Erdelyi, 1974). Cognitive research of this sort addresses profound questions concerning who is running the show. Does the conscious self call the shots, or is the brain going about its business without much interference from the conscious thinker? In this section, we first review research on automatic aspects of social cognition, and then we consider the case that can be made for the capacity of the conscious mind to control and regulate processes of social cognition. Finally, we consider some of the ways in which automatic and effortful processes can interact to determine jointly the course of perception, thought, and action.

Automatic Social Cognition

The foundations for social-psychological treatments of the issue of automaticity have been established in the work of Bargh (e.g., 1982; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Bargh & Ferguson, 2000). Synthesizing the insights emerging from disparate research areas touching on the issue of automaticity, Bargh (1994) argued that the notion of automatic mental processes is complex and multifaceted. He argued that the term has been used to refer to four distinct qualities of information processing: awareness, intention, efficiency, and control. That is, a process tends to be considered automatic if it (a) occurs without the person’s awareness, (b) occurs without the person’s intention, (c) occurs with great efficiency and does not require much mental capacity, or (d) occurs in a manner that is difficult to prevent or stop. Not all four criteria are necessary for a process to be considered automatic. When one or more of these characteristics is present, the relevant process is often deemed to be relatively automatic.

A particularly compelling and influential demonstration of the implicit operation of the mind was provided by Warrington and Weiskrantz (1968). Their research documented that individuals suffering from anterograde amnesia, who are unable to consciously recollect their recent experiences, nevertheless showed a clear benefit from that experience in the performance of indirect tests of memory, such as completing word fragments. Although these patients have no explicit memory for the words they saw during a study period, they nevertheless were better able to complete word fragments when the corresponding word had indeed been previously studied. This research clearly indicates that memories can be quite influential even when there is no conscious awareness of the relevant prior episodes.

Social cognition researchers have sought to investigate the role of awareness in social cognition in several ways. One approach has simply been to demonstrate that individuals are often unable to articulate accurately the factors that are important in shaping their behavioral choices (e.g., Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). This fact obviously implies that people are generally unaware of the processes at work behind the scenes in the preconscious mind. Another approach to documenting that some processes occur without awareness has been adopted in research on priming. The basic idea of priming research is quite straightforward. Individuals are exposed to a task or environmental context that is designed to activate a particular mental representation. Then a second, ostensibly unrelated task is performed, and the researcher seeks to determine whether the previously activated representation exerts any influence on information processing in the second task. Research of this sort conclusively demonstrates that concepts that have been activated in one context can continue to influence social cognition in subsequent, unrelated contexts, by virtue of their enhanced accessibility (Higgins, 1996).Acommon effect of such priming is that subsequently encountered information is assimilated toward the activated concept. For example,SrullandWyer(1979)showedthatactivatinghostile concepts in a language-processing task caused participants to form more negative impressions of an ambiguous social target in a subsequent impression formation task, compared to participants who never had the hostile concepts activated in the initial task. It is typically assumed that this assimilation process occurs because the fortuitously activated concepts are used to disambiguate later information, and the perceiver is presumed to be oblivious to the fact that it is occurring.

Perhaps the best evidence that priming effects occur without the perceiver’s awareness comes from research that employs subliminal priming techniques. In this research, concepts are activated by exposing participants to extremely brief stimulus presentations (see Bargh & Chartrand, 2000, for procedural details). Although perceivers are unable to describe the stimuli to which they have been exposed, they nevertheless show evidence of priming effects. We have already described one experiment by Devine (1989) that showed that subliminal activation of words associated with the African American stereotype caused perceivers to view an ambiguously aggressive target as more hostile, compared to individuals who had not been primed with the stereotypic concepts. Similar findings have been reported by other researchers (e.g., Bargh & Pietromonaco, 1982), confirming that priming effects can occur outside of the perceiver’s conscious awareness.

It is usually assumed that for these assimilative priming effects to occur, not only must the relevant concept be accessible, but it must also be applicable (Higgins, 1996). In line with this proposition, Banaji, Hardin, and Rothman (1993) demonstrated that priming gender stereotypes resulted in more stereotypical impressions of ambiguous targets, but only when the target was a member of the relevant gender group—that is, activating masculine concepts resulted in the perception of ambiguous male targets in a more stereotypical manner, but it largely did not affect perceptions of female targets. Conversely, activating feminine concepts resulted in perceiving ambiguous female targets in a more stereotypical manner, but it did not affect perceptions of male targets.Although priming effects do operate under the constraints of applicability, the processes involved in using or failing to use activated concepts as a basis for disambiguating social targets appears to operate largely without any awareness on the perceiver’s part.

It is not inevitably the case that priming results in assimilation to the primed concepts. For example, Herr (1986) demonstrated that when activated concepts are sufficiently extreme, they can produce contrast effects. A contrast effect is said to occur when an object is judged more extremely in the direction opposite to the activated concept. For example, if an ambiguous target were judged to be significantly less hostile after an African American stereotype had been activated (compared to an unprimed control group), this would constitute a contrast effect. The mechanism producing contrast effects involves using the activated concept as a comparison standard rather than as an interpretive frame. Thus, in the case of Herr’s research, for example, the target person is compared to the activated standard and is consequently seen as relatively less hostile, given the extremity of the standard. The question of whether contrast effects occur automatically has been a matter of continuing theoretical dispute (e.g., Martin, Seta, & Crelia, 1990; Stapel & Koomen, 1998).

Another hallmark of automatic processing is the occurrence of unintended effects. The assimilative priming effects just reviewed certainly meet this criterion of automaticity, because it is clearly not the case that individuals intend to use subliminally activated concepts to guide subsequent impressions. Another domain providing compelling evidence for unintended aspects of impression formation is research on spontaneous trait inferences. The question at stake in this research concerns whether social perceivers spontaneously infer that observed behavior implies that the actor has a corresponding personality trait. In historical models of this process of dispositional inference (e.g., Jones & Davis, 1965), it was typically assumed that perceivers engage in a fairly extensive deductive reasoning process to determine the trait implications of observed behavior, comparing the effects of the observed behavior with the simulated effects of not performing it or of performing an alternative option. In contrast, more recent research on spontaneous trait inferences suggests that perceivers automatically infer the trait implications of behavioral information, even if that is not their conscious intention. For example, Winter and Uleman (1984) presented participants with behavioral descriptions (e.g., Billy hit the ballerina) and subsequently asked participants to recall the presented descriptions with the aid of cues. The cues were either semantically related to the theme of the description (e.g., dance) or were related to the trait implications of the behavior (e.g., hostile). Cued recall performance was markedly better when trait cues were available. In a different paradigm, Uleman, Hon, Roman, and Moskowitz (1996) showed that people spontaneously made trait inferences when processing behavioral descriptions, even when such inferences actually impaired performance of their focal task. In this paradigm, participants read behavioral descriptions on a computer screen. Immediately after the presentation of a description, a word appeared on the screen and participants had to indicate whether that exact word had appeared in the preceding sentence. When the target word was a trait that was implied by the behavioral description, reaction times were slower and error rates were higher than they were when the same target words followed similar descriptions that did not imply the traits in question. This kind of evidence suggests that fundamental aspects of social perception can occur quite spontaneously, without any conscious instigation on the part of the perceiver.

Trait inferences are but one manifestation of unintended social cognition. In a growing program of research, Bargh and colleagues have shown that without the formation of any conscious intention, primed or salient stimuli can trigger spontaneous behavior (e.g., Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996). For example, Barghet al. Showed that activating stereotypes about elderly persons resulted in slower rates of walking. Similarly, Chen and Bargh (1997) showed that subliminal presentation of African American (as compared with European American) faces resulted in more hostile behavior in a subsequent verbal game played with an unprimed partner. Moreover, the unprimed partner’s behavior also became more hostile as a consequence, showing that self-fulfilling prophecies can emerge in a very automatic manner—even when participants are unaware that stereotypical concepts have even been activated and have formed no conscious intention to act in a manner consistent with these concepts. Although the precise mechanisms responsible for these fascinating effects have not been isolated, the very existence of the phenomenon provides a potent demonstration of the potential automaticity of not only social thought, but also interpersonal interaction.

A principal advantage of automatic reactions lies in the fact that they are largely not dependent on the availability of processing resources. Because of the great efficiency with which they unfold, automatic processes do not require much investment of attentional capacity or perceiver motivation. Whereas novice drivers can find it harrowing to coordinate all of the requisite activities (shifting gears, monitoring traffic, steering, braking, etc.), after the process has been automated, not only can these tasks be easily performed, but the driver may also have sufficient reserve capacity available for singing along with the stereo or engaging in mobile phone conversations. Empirical confirmation of the resourceconserving properties of automatic mental processes was provided in a series of experiments by Macrae, Milne, and Bodenhausen (1994). In one of their studies, they asked participants to engage in two tasks simultaneously: a visual impression-formation task that involved reading personality descriptions of four different persons, and an audio task that involved listening to a description of the geography and economy of Indonesia. For half of the participants, stereotypes were activated in the impression-formation task (by providing information about a social group to which each target belonged). Some of the personality information was consistent with stereotypes about the relevant group, and the rest was irrelevant to such stereotypes. One might expect that giving these participants an additional piece of information to integrate would simply make their task all that much harder—but in fact, the introduction of the stereotype provided a framework that participants could spontaneously use to organize their impressions, making the process of impression formation much more automatic and efficient. As a consequence, participants who knew about the group memberships of the social targets not only recalled more information about the targets (as revealed in a free recall measure), they also learned more information about Indonesia (as revealed in a multiplechoice test). The automatic reactions triggered by stereotype activation provided a clear functional benefit to perceivers by making the process of impression formation more efficient, thereby freeing up attentional resources that could be devoted to the other pressing task.

When automatic effects of these sorts occur without awareness, intention, or much attentional investment, is there any hope of preventing them or stopping them after they start? In the realm of automatic stereotyping effects, Bargh (1999) has argued that the prospects for controlling such effects are slim to none. Indeed, the final hallmark of an automatic process is its imperviousness to control. In line with Bargh’s assertion, the previously described research of Devine (1989) showed that even low-prejudice individuals who disavow racist stereotypes are still prone to showing automatic effects of stereotype activation. Similarly, Dunning and Sherman (1997) found that implicit gender stereotyping occurred independently of participants’level of sexism. However, other research has begun to suggest that at least some of the time, it may be possible to develop control over automatic processes. Uleman et al. (1996), for example, found that with practice, people could learn to avoid making spontaneous trait inferences. Similarly, it seems that egalitarian individuals can also learn to control automatic stereotyping effects, at least under some circumstances (e.g., Wittenbrink, Judd, & Park, 1997). It is toward the processes through which mental control can be achieved that we now turn our attention.

Controlled Social Cognition

The process of controlling thought and action, at least in relatively novel and unpracticed domains, requires attention. Whereas automatic processes occur efficiently and thus require little expenditure of mental resources, effortful, controlled processes come with an attentional price to pay. Moreover, controlled processes typically require intentional deployment, and they occur in a manner that is at least partially accessible to the conscious mind. Whereas many computational processes of implicit cognition are regarded to be massively parallel, attention and consciousness represent a processing bottleneck that results in highly selective and serial information processing (e.g., Simon, 1994). As Simon notes, connecting one’s motives to one’s thought processes requires a system that can cope with the constraints imposed by limitations of attentional capacity.

Attentional capacity has turned out to be a major theoretical construct in social cognition research (for a review, see Sherman, Macrae, & Bodenhausen, 2001) precisely because it plays such a fundamental role in determining whether it will be possible for the perceiver to engage in controlled processing. Without sufficient mental resources, automatic mental processes are presumed to operate in an unchecked manner, and it is difficult or impossible for perceivers to impose their will and exercise control over the workings of their own minds. Early theorizing about attentional capacity assumed a simple, unitary structure to the mental resources that are used in conscious, controlled information processing. However, advances in cognitive neuroscience have made it possible to identify a more differentiated set of working memory resources (e.g., Roberts, Robbins, & Weiskrantz, 1998). Baddeley (1998) proposed that there are three principal facets to working memory, each with a limited capacity for holding information: a phonological buffer, a visuospatial sketch pad, and a central executive. It is the latter resource that is most important to social-cognitive theorizing, because it is the central executive that governs the conscious planning, execution, and regulation of behavior. When these executive resources are in ample supply, individuals are generally able to exercise a considerable degree of control over their conscious thought processes and behavioral responses; when these finite resources have been usurped by other ongoing processes, however, the resulting executive dysfunction can put perceivers in the position of failing to produce intended patterns of thinking and responding. Under this circumstance, thought and action will be dictated more by potent automatic reactions than by the force of the conscious will.

Research on mental control has undergone a dramatic resurgence in the past decade (for an excellent sampling of research topics, see Wegner & Pennebaker, 1993). Wegner’s research on thought suppression has been a major impetus for this explosion of research attention (e.g., Wegner, 1994; Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). In this research, the prospects for mental self-control have been investigated by providing participants with a self-regulatory injunction to consciously pursue (e.g., don’t think about white bears or don’t be sexist). Success is measured simply by the number of times the unwanted response is generated, and success rates can be considerable—provided that the person has ample attentional resources. However, if a cognitive load is imposed on the person (e.g., a secondary task must be completed simultaneously, such as rehearsing an eight-digit number), not only are unwanted responses likely to emerge, but they are also likely to occur with even greater frequency than they would if the person had never tried to suppress them in the first place (i.e., a rebound effect).

Wegner (1994) proposed a theoretical account for this state of affairs; his account rests on the assumption that mental control reflects the operation of two separate processes. A monitoring process is responsible for checking to see whether undesired responses (e.g., sexist thoughts) are occurring. If it should detect such responses, an operating process is triggered that serves to squelch the unwanted response by finding an acceptable substitute response (e.g., thoughts about a target’s occupation rather than her gender). Crucial to his model are two additional assumptions. First, the monitoring process can do its work in a relatively automatic manner, but must of necessity keep active in memory (even if only at a relatively low level) a representation of the undesirable response so that it can be recognized if it should appear. Thus, the monitoring process ironically keeps an unwanted thought or response salient in the perceiver’s mind. This recurrent activation of the undesired target stimulus is not a big problem, so long as the operating process can counteract the unwanted response whenever it does exceed the threshold necessary for conscious awareness. However, a second assumption of the model is that the operating process is relatively effortful and requires sufficient attentional resources. Hence, if these resources are being depleted by other tasks (e.g., rehearsing a digit string), the enhanced accessibility created as a byproduct of the monitoring process cannot be effectively checked, and the stage is set for rebound effects.

These assumptions have been explored in the domain of stereotype suppression by several researchers. In the contemporary social world, it has become largely taboo to respond to many stigmatized social groups in terms of negative stereotypes and prejudices that have historically been prevalent. In the previous section, we reviewed several pieces of evidence suggesting that stereotypes can exert numerous automatic effects on information processing. If so, what are the prospects for success when perceivers strive to follow the dictates of cultural injunctions against thinking discriminatory thoughts about these stigmatized groups? In an initial demonstration, Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, and Jetten (1994) showed that individuals who strive to prevent stereotypical reactions from entering their thoughts can succeed as long as they are actively pursuing that objective. However, consistent with the implications of Wegner’s ironic model of mental control, this process rendered the unwanted thoughts hyper-accessible, and Macrae et al. found that after the suppression motivation had dissipated, rebound effects emerged when subsequent members of the stereotyped group were encountered. That is, participants reported even more stereotypical reactions to the subsequent group members than did individuals who had never engaged in any previous stereotype suppression. These findings confirm that intentionally suppressing stereotypes ironically involves repeatedly priming them, albeit at relatively low levels—and this in turn renders the stereotypes all the more accessible. If the operating process that is commissioned to direct attention away from unwanted thoughts shouldbecompromisedeitherbytheimpositionofacognitive load or by the dissipation of the motivation required for its activity (being a relatively effortful, controlled process), this in turn can lead to rebound effects.

Additional ironic implications of stereotype suppression were uncovered in subsequent research. For example, trying not to think stereotypical thoughts about an elderly target resulted in better memory for the most stereotypical characteristics displayed by the target (Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Wheeler, 1996). Moreover, these effects are not limited to situations in which an overt, external requirement for thought suppression is imposed; even when suppression motivation was self-generated in a relatively spontaneous manner, ironic effects were observed to result (Macrae, Bodenhausen, & Milne, 1998). Other research suggests that rebound effects of this sort are more likely to emerge in high-prejudice persons (Monteith, Spicer, & Toomen, 1998) and in situations in which the perceiver is unlikely to have chronically high levels of suppression motivation (Wyer, Sherman, & Stroessner, 2000). These qualifications are quite consistent with general idea that even the process of mental control itself is subject to somedegreeofautomation.Withpractice,theinitialeffortfulness of stereotype suppression may be replaced by relative efficiency.

Another form of controlled processing that has received considerable attention from social cognition researchers is judgmental correction. When perceivers suspect that their judgments have been contaminated by unwanted or inappropriate biases, they may take steps to adjust their judgments in a manner that will remove the unwanted influence (e.g., Wilson & Brekke, 1994). Whereas the initial processes that produced the bias are likely to be automatic ones, the processes involved in correcting for them are usually considered to be effortful. Hence, they require perceiver motivation and processing capacity for their deployment. One particularly noteworthy domain in which such hypotheses have been investigated is research on person perception. In particular, it has long been established that people are susceptible to a correspondence bias, in which they tend to perceive the behavior of others to be a reflection of corresponding internal dispositions—even when there are clear and unambiguous situational constraints on the behavior (e.g., Jones & Harris, 1967; Gilbert & Malone, 1995). The previously described research on spontaneous trait inference is consistent with the idea that people often immediately assume that behavior reflects the actor’s dispositions. In an influential theoretical assessment of this bias, Gilbert (e.g., 1998) proposed that dispositional inferences involve three distinct stages. In the categorization stage, the observed behavior is construed in terms of its trait implications (e.g., Hannah shared her dessert with her brother could be categorized as kind). Then the inferred trait is ascribed to the actor in the characterization stage. Both of these stages are assumed to be relatively automatic —that is, they occur spontaneously, efficiently, and without intention. In a third correction stage, individuals may consider the situational constraints that might have influenced the behavior (e.g., Mommy threatened Hannah with retribution if she failed to share her dessert) and adjust their dispositional inferences accordingly (e.g., perhaps Hannah isn’t so kind after all). This correction process is assumed to be a controlled activity that requires motivation and processing capacity for its execution.

In numerous experiments, Gilbert and colleagues have pursued the implications of this model by demonstrating that situational constraints are often not taken into account when perceivers are given a taxing mental task to perform that occupies their central executive resources (e.g., rehearsing a random digit string). For example, when watching a nervouslooking woman, people spontaneously assume that she is an anxious person; only subsequently do they correct this initial assumption in light of the fact that she is in an anxietyprovoking situation (e.g., a job interview). If they have to watch the seemingly nervous person while rehearsing a digit string, they still automatically infer the trait of anxiety, but they no longer engage in corrective adjustments in light of the situational constraint. This pattern of results is quite consistent with the idea that correction is a controlled, resource-dependent process. When attentional resources are diminished, the automatic tendencies of the system remain unchecked by more effortful control mechanisms.

A more general treatment of the nature of correction processes has been provided by Wegener and Petty (1997) in their flexible correction model. According to this model, correction processes operate on the basis of lay theories about the direction and extent of biasing influences. When people suspect that they may have fallen prey to some untoward influence, they rely on their intuitive ideas about the nature of the bias to make compensatory corrective adjustments. For example, if they believe that their judgments of a particular person have been assimilated to stereotypes about the person’s gender group, then they would adjust those judgments in the opposite direction to make them less stereotypical in nature. Conversely, if they believe that their judgment of a target has been contrasted away from a salient standard of comparison, they will make adjustments that result in judgments in which the target is seen as more similar to the comparison standard. Several points are important to keep in mind with regard to this correction process. First, it requires that the perceiver detect the biasing influence before the process can initiate (Stapel, Martin, & Schwarz, 1998; Strack & Hannover, 1996). Many automatic biasing influences are likely to be subtle and hence escape detection; as a result, no correctional remedy is pursued. Second, as a controlled process, it is likely to require motivation and attentional capacity for its successful execution. Third, if correctional mechanisms are to result in a less biased judgment, the perceiver must have a generally accurate lay theory about the direction and extent of the bias. Otherwise, corrections could go in the wrong direction, they could go insufficiently in the right direction, or they could go too far in the right direction, leading to overcorrection. Indeed, many examples of overcorrection have been documented (see Wegener & Petty, 1997, for a review), indicating that even when a bias is detected and capacity and motivation are present, controlled processes are not necessarily effective in accurately counteracting automatic biases.

Wegner and Bargh (1998) categorize several ways in which automatic and controlled mental processes interact with one another. The examples we have just described fall into the category of regulation—when a controlled process overrides an automatic one. When an automatic process overrides a controlled one, as in the rebound effect, intrusion is said to occur. Controlled processes can also launch automatic processes that subserve the achievement of the actor’s momentary intentions, and this is termed delegation. For example, delegation would be said to occur if a conscious goal to go to the shopping mall triggered the many automatic aspects of driving behavior. Conversely, automatic processes can serve an orienting function in which they launch controlled processes, as in Wegner’s model of mental control: When the automatic monitoring process detects an unwanted thought, it triggers the more effortful operating process to banish the thought from conscious awareness. Finally, controlled processes can be transformed into automatic processes via automatization, as when perceivers become so skilled at suppressing stereotypes that it happens automatically, and automatic processes can be transformed into controlled processes via disruption, as when one starts thinking too much about the steps involved in a well-learned task and subsequently performs the task more poorly.

In many ways, the tension between automatic and controlled processes has become the heart of social cognition research. Most contemporary social cognition research programs are oriented toward this issue in a fundamental way. One of the key insights to emerge from this research is that our perceptions of and reactions to the social world are often shaped by rapid, automatic processes over which we commonly exercise very little control. By virtue of their very automaticity, the impressions that are constructed on this basis often have the phenomenological quality of being direct representations of objective reality. We feel, for example, that Mary is objectively a kind and caring person rather than recognize the role that our own biases (e.g., gender stereotypes) may have played in shaping this necessarily subjective interpretation. It may be possible to exercise control over these processes. If we pause long enough to entertain the possibility that our perceptions of the world may contain systematic biases, we can engage in suitable corrective action. This action, however, requires awareness, motivation, and attentional capacity. Without them, we may function more like automatons than like the rational agents we often fancy ourselves to be.

Social Cognition in Context: Motivationaland Affective Influences

A common question asked of social cognition researchers is How is social cognition different from “regular” cognition? A common answer to this question is that whereas cognitive psychologists often study cognitive processes in a manner that is divorced from the real-life contexts in which these mechanisms operate, social-cognition researchers muddy the waters by attempting to add back some of the real-life context into their experiments. In real life, our mental processes occur within a complex framework of motivations and affective experiences. Whereas most cognitive psychology experiments attempt to eliminate the role played by these factors, social cognition researchers have had to increasingly recognize that an understanding of how the social mind works must include a consideration of how basic processes of perception, memory, and inference are influenced by motivation and emotion.

There have been a series of interesting debates in social psychology that take the form of questioning whether a particular phenomenon can be explained in purely cognitive terms, or whether one must invoke motivational processes in order to account for it. One case in point is the tendency for people to form negative stereotypes about minority groups. This phenomenon has been studied for quite a long time, and many explanations for it focus on the perceiver’s motivations that are gratified by engaging in stereotyping of this sort. For instance, maybe perceivers derive feelings of superior selfworth by looking down on members of other groups (e.g., Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950) or by viewing their own group as positively distinct from other groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Alternatively, negative stereotypes might arise in order to forestall feelings of guilt about social inequality (Jost & Banaji, 1994). Could the tendency to stereotype minority groups negatively ever be explained in purely cognitive terms, without appealing to these kinds of motivational explanations? Hamilton and Gifford (1976) produced an influential affirmative answer to this question. In a paper that stimulated dozens of subsequent investigations, they argued that a simple cognitive principle could account for the tendency to believe that minority groups are more likely to possess negative characteristics. Specifically, they proposed that one could view stereotyping merely as a natural by-product of our tendency to pay more attention to distinctive events.

In their experiments, they presented participants with information about members of two groups of differing sizes. Although the information was predominantly positive, negative information was provided about both groups.An important feature was that within each group, the ratio of negative to positive information was exactly the same; thus, there was objectively no correlation between group membership and positivity of the available information. Hamilton and Gifford argued that if people have a tendency to attend more to distinctive information, they will (a) tend to pay more attention to information about the smaller (minority) group, because it is more rare and hence distinctive; and (b) tend to pay more attention to negative information than to positive information, because it is also relatively rarer. This means that the negative information about the minority group will be especially (doubly) distinctive, and it should tend to stand out more in perceivers’memories and impressions of the groups. This pattern was in fact empirically observed. The participants tended to form illusory correlations, in which the minority group was perceived to be characterized by negative qualities greater than those of the majority group.

Although it has been debated whether distinctiveness per se is the factor that produces this pattern of illusory correlation (e.g., Fiedler, 1991), the interesting point is that in this situation, negative stereotypes arise in the absence of the usual motivational forces that had previously been assumed to be causally responsible for prejudice-related phenomena. It thus appears that sometimes the basic properties of our information-processing apparatus can produce biases and distortions that have important consequences; this can occur independent of the perceivers’ particular motivational orientation. Yet anyone who has observed the phenomena of stereotyping and prejudice would instantly recognize that this account is at best only part of the story. The unsavory signature of motivated distortion is written in a variety of stereotyping phenomena (e.g., Fein & Spencer, 1997; Sinclair & Kunda, 2000). More generally, purely cognitive explanations for virtually any socially interesting phenomenon are likely to fall well short of providing a satisfying explanatory account. It seems to us undeniable that the study of cognitive processes must ultimately be situated within the context of the mind’s affective and motivational dynamics, because there is no compelling way in which these various facets of mind can be meaningfully divorced from one another. In the present section, we attempt to provide a representative survey of the extensive evidence indicating that motivational and affective forces are indeed of central importance in understanding the dynamics of social cognition. In fact, it becomes impossible to think of motivation and cognition as separable phenomena after one develops an appreciation for the implications of this evidence.

As a starting point for understanding the motivational underpinnings of social cognition, it is useful to consider the general categories of motives that have come under theoretical and empirical scrutiny in social cognition research. We focus here on three such broad categories: epistemic motives (pertaining to the need to understand the social world), defensive motives (pertaining to the need to view oneself and one’s environment in pleasing and desirable rather than threatening ways), and social-adjustive motives (pertaining to the need for the acceptance and approval of others).

Epistemic Motivation

A fundamental motivation thought to underlie all of social cognition to various degrees is the desire to understand the people and events we experience in our daily lives. This motivation undoubtedly arises from our basic desire to feel safe and in control of our lives. When we have a sense of understanding the social world, interactions seem predictable and manageable. When we do not understand what is happening around us, we quite naturally feel disoriented and relatively helpless. This core need to figure things out must be balanced against a variety of constraints, most notably the constraints imposed by the information-processing limitations of our nervous systems (e.g., the finite capacity of working memory). Given that we cannot engage in active processing of all potentially relevant evidence before forming an impression or making a judgment, our efforts to understand the world must necessarily be selective and rely to a certain extent on inference and supposition. Of primary importance is the subjective sense that we have a reasonably clear understanding of the situations we face in everyday life.

An assumption shared by many social-cognitive theories is the idea that epistemic motivation varies across persons and situations, and this variability has important implications for the types of information-processing strategies that perceivers are likely to use in making judgments and choices (see Chaiken & Trope, 1999, for numerous relevant reviews). Stated simply, the assumption is that when such motivation is high, perceivers are likely to engage in more sustained, effortful, and detail-oriented analysis of the social environment. However, when epistemic motivation is low, perceivers are likely to rely on their immediate reactions, which often arise via the operation of automatic processes, the exercise of relatively simple judgmental heuristics, or both (e.g., Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). These fast, top-of-the-head reactions often seem to provide an adequate basis for understanding the situation, so unless there is some particularly pressing reason to do so, pursuing more effortful and analytic strategies may seem unnecessary.

One prototypical context within which these contingencies have been much studied is the domain of stereotyping. Recognizing the extent to which stereotypes can provide rapid, efficient appraisals of others, Lippmann (1922) argued that preconceptions about social groups serve a vital knowledge function for perceivers. Instead of getting to know each individual in terms of his or her own unique constellation of characteristics (which would certainly be a daunting task in complex, socially dense environments), we can rely to a great extent upon generalities that subjectively seem to be sufficiently accurate. Only in circumstances in which it is really imperative to know an individual with particular accuracy do we need to devote the extra time and energy necessary for going beyond a stereotypical impression. Many situational moderators of accuracy motivation have been investigated. For example, telling people that they will be held accountable for their judgments makes them much less reliant on stereotypes (e.g., Bodenhausen, Kramer, & Süsser, 1994). Being in a position of interdependence with (or dependency on) another person can provide an impetus to know the other person more accurately and can thereby also reduce reliance on simple generalizations (e.g., Fiske & Dépret, 1996). The personal relevance or importance of a judgment also can raise fears of invalidity, motivating perceivers to invest more effort into the judgment-making process (e.g., Kruglanski & Freund, 1983). Finally, experiencing a loss of control can motivate greater information-processing effort in subsequent judgment contexts (Pittman & D’Agostino, 1989). Presumably, the desire to restore a sense of subjective control motivates careful attention to the details of the environment in order to provide a maximally accurate assessment of its contingencies.

Epistemic motivation also varies across persons; certain types of individuals show a more chronic orientation toward relatively effortful and detailed impressions of the social world. Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, and Jarvis (1996) reviewed an extensive body of research on an individual difference variable that directly captures this tendency, the need for cognition. Persons high in need for cognition are likely to engage spontaneously in more elaborate analysis of social information, in part because they may simply enjoy figuring things out. Whereas others may be quite content to rely on simple heuristics and stereotypes, individuals who possess a higher need for cognition are unlikely to do so, provided that they have the time and attentional resources available to think more deeply about the judgmental situation. Another dispositional quality that can motivate individuated rather than stereotypical impressions is found in persons who experience chronic loss of control (e.g., Edwards & Weary, 1993). Just as individuals who have experienced a situational loss of control are motivated to repair their feelings of vulnerability by taking care to know the environmental setting accurately, so do persons experiencing more chronic problems with loss of control. Individuals who experience a chronic fear of invalidity for any reason are likely to have generally higher levels of baseline motivation for systematic or effortful information processing (see Kruglanski, 1996). Thus, greater accuracy motivation can arise either because of (positive) enjoyment of engaging in mental analysis or (negative) anxiety about making a mistaken judgment or choice.

Apart from accuracy motivation, epistemic motivation also derives from the extent to which persons feel a strong need for closure (or its avoidance). According to Kruglanski and Webster (1996), the need for closure involves the desire for definite knowledge and the desire to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty. This need, which also varies across persons and situations, lends a sense of urgency to information processing, leading to a tendency to seize on initial reactions rather than pursue a more detailed analytical course. In addition, this need also invokes a desire to maintain closure. Situational variations in need for closure can be created, for example, by manipulating the deadline for judgments. Many investigations of the need for closure have examined more enduring, dispositional variations. Consequences of high need for closure have now been documented in many social settings. For example, de Dreu, Koole, and Oldersma (1999) showed that persons high in the need for closure were more likely use simplifying heuristics in a negotiation setting. Shah, Kruglanski, and Thompson (1998) showed that need for closure increased ingroup favoritism and out-group derogation—both processes that can be attributed to the invocation of simple evaluative heuristics. When individuals want an answer quickly, they are thus unlikely to go beyond their initial reactions; to do so might necessitate addressing complexities and ambiguities that would only undermine the press for closure.

Defensive Motivation

The desire for predictability and control is presumably best served by the formation of accurate representations and judgments. Yet sometimes the truth hurts, and we would feel better if we could avoid it. Thus, our need to know the social world inevitably involves a tension between accuracy and defensive motives (e.g., Taylor & Brown, 1988). Defensive motives reflect our desire to see ourselves and our social worlds in desirable, positive ways and to avoid unflattering or threatening realities. This tension is reflected in research examining the perceiver’s need to feel like a reasonable, rational agent. Although previously described research has suggested that people often apply stereotypes as a sort of default, only going beyond a stereotypical impression when accuracy motivation is high and need for closure is low, there are some cases in which this tendency may be undermined by a different set of concerns.

Sometimes individuals may be reluctant to apply stereotypes in their judgments of others because such stereotypes are considered socially undesirable or inaccurate. As reviewed in the previous section, this kind of situation can motivate effortful attempts to suppress stereotypes or otherwise correct for their influence on judgments. More generally, people may be reluctant to render judgments about others unless they feel they have a defensible basis for doing so (e.g., Yzerbyt, Leyens, & Corneille, 1998). For example, if presented with a male versus female target (e.g., just a picture and no other information) and asked to judge the person’s suitability for an engineering job, judges would probably be very reluctant to rely on sexist stereotypes. Under these circumstances, they would very likely feel that they were not entitled to judge the person. However, if given a résumé to go along with the photo, perhaps containing evaluatively mixed credentials, they may then feel entitled to judge (and might very well rely on their sexist stereotypes under this circumstance). In a different vein, some individuals typically do not rely on social stereotypes because they do not view persons (or groups) as having very stable, enduring qualities (Levy, Stroessner, & Dweck, 1998). For these persons, simply knowing a person’s group membership does not seem like a very informative basis for forming impressions, so they must satisfy their epistemic motivations by seeking out other kinds of data. Perceivers thus must balance their tendency to use simplifying generalizations with their desire to feel that they have a valid and reasonable basis for judging others. This latter desire can derive as much from defensive as from epistemic motivations.

Perhaps the most classic example of a defensive motive is the desire for self-enhancement. People want to think well of themselves and avoid confronting their own shortcomings. This powerful motivation has been examined in innumerable psychological studies (for a review, see Pittman, 1998). The obvious implication for social cognition is that people are motivated to form self-serving impressions, and this tendency has been documented in many ways. To pick but one example, it has been found that people are more likely to activate and apply negative stereotypes when self-enhancement needs have been aroused by a recently experienced threat to selfesteem (Spencer, Fein, Wolfe, Fong, & Dunn, 1998). As previously noted, one fundamental motivation for prejudice and stereotyping may be the fact that their application can provide a mechanism whereby the perceiver can feel superior to others (e.g., Fein & Spencer, 1997). In addition to economizing cognition, stereotyping thus can simultaneously gratify other motivational constraints.

In addition to wanting to feel superior to others, we also want to feel impervious to harm and to believe that the world is fair and just. The phenomenon of “blaming the victim” (e.g., Lerner, 1998) is one important by-product of these profound needs. If bad things can happen to good people, this has disturbing implications for our senses of safety and justice. Consequently, we may come to view the victims of unfortunate circumstances as possessing qualities that precipitated or otherwise can explain their unhappy fate. Lerner argues that these beliefs often operate in a primitive, implicit manner in shaping our impressions and blame reactions, rather than through a more conscious application of deductive reasoning. Seen in this light, applying negative stereotypes to members of socially disadvantaged groups can be seen as a way of bolstering our sense that the existing system of social inequality is just and appropriate (see also Jost & Banaji, 1994).

Perhaps the greatest threat to our sense of safety and invulnerability comes from the recognition of our own mortality. Research on terror management (e.g., Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999) suggests that we have a fundamental motivation to defend ourselves against confronting our own eventual demise. One strategy for coping with this unpleasant reality lies in the creation and maintenance of broader worldviews that imbue life with a sense of meaning and purpose that extend beyond the life of the individual. In a series of studies, it has been shown that reminding people of their own mortality results in the motivation to bolster one’s cultural worldview. One way in which this can be accomplished is by disparaging individuals who threaten or contradict one’s worldview, such as the members of other social groups (Schimel et al., 1999). Given the wide array of defensive motivations that are addressed by forming negative and hostile impressions of out-groups, the enduring manifestations of intergroup conflict around the world may seem all the more intractable.

Research of this sort shows that although accurate perceptions are important to attainment of control, other powerful needs operate, pushing us toward perceiving the world in ways we want it to be (Kunda, 1990; MacCoun, 1998). Fortunately for the social perceiver, given the often-considerable ambiguity of social stimuli, the need to feel that one has accurate knowledge can often be met while simultaneously pursuing the need to feel good about oneself. But just what mechanisms are available to produce the desired self-serving impressions and judgments? There are many such mechanisms. First, perceivers may selectively attend to stimuli in ways that provide desired outcomes. In one recent demonstration, Mussweiler, Gabriel, and Bodenhausen (2000) showed,forexample,thatwhenputinthethreateningposition of having been outperformed by another person, people tend to strategically focus on aspects of their own identity that serve to differentiate them from the upward comparison standard. For example, a European American woman who is outperformedbyanAsianwomanmayactivateself-definitionsin which her ethnicity is more salient. People generally find similar others to be more relevant bases for social comparison, so by emphasizing an aspect of her identity that differentiates her from a potential comparison standard, she renders that standard less diagnostic for self-evaluation. Use of this identity differentiation strategy is indeed associated with greater positive affect and enhanced situational self-esteem following an upward comparison.

Aparticularly powerful demonstration of motivated selectivity in the use of identity dimensions was provided by Sinclair and Kunda (1999). In their research, they presented individuals with evaluative feedback that ostensibly came from a source that was simultaneously a member of both a positively stereotyped and a negatively stereotyped group. For example, the participants were either praised or criticized by an African American doctor. Having been criticized, participants were motivated to discredit the evaluator, and they tended to activate African American stereotypes while at the same time inhibiting doctor stereotypes. Conversely, having been praised, participants were motivated to imbue the evaluator with credibility, so they tended to activate doctor stereotypes while simultaneously inhibiting African American stereotypes. This research suggests an important mechanism whereby desired conclusions can be reached: By inhibiting stimulus dimensions that could challenge the preferred impression, perceivers do not have to face their unwanted implications. Selective attention is clearly a hallmark of motivated social cognition.

Perceivers can also selectively sample from their memories in order to reach desired conclusions. For example, Sanitioso, Kunda, and Fong (1990) showed that after receiving information indicating that introverts (or, alternatively, extroverts) are more likely to enjoy positive academic and social outcomes, people selectively recalled past behaviors that were consistent with the desirable characteristic. There are many ways in which we selectively construct autobiographical memories in order to confirm our desired beliefs about ourselves (e.g., Ross & Wilson, 2000). Similar processes may operate in our perceptions of others. That is, we may selectively remember the “facts” differently about liked versus disliked others, giving the benefit of the doubt to those toward whom we feel an affinity by recalling their most favorable moments; however, when we pause to think about those to whom we feel enmity, we may conjure up episodes when they were at their worst. Moreover, if confronted with an irrefutable set of facts, perceivers always have the option of explaining the facts in different ways. For instance, a liked individual (or group) will be assumed to be more responsible for a positive event than a disliked entity would be, whereas negative events may be seen as more situationally caused for liked (versus disliked) social entities (e.g., Pettigrew, 1979; Regan, Straus, & Fazio, 1974). Further, the perceived trait implications of a behavior can depend critically on whether we are motivated to think well or ill of the actor. An ambiguously aggressive behavior may be seen as disgraceful hostility when performed by an African American, yet the same behavior may be seen as a playful interaction when performed by a European American (e.g., Sagar & Schofield, 1980). Again, the inherent ambiguity of many social events lends itself to creative and selective interpretations and reconstructions.

Perceivers can also apply differential evidentiary standards, depending on the desirability of the implied conclusion. Naturally, a more stringent criterion of proof is required for unwanted or unpleasant conclusions compared to pleasing ones (Ditto & Lopez, 1992). That is to say, if an initial consideration of the evidence supports a desired conclusion, we may be quite content to stop, but if the initial implications are displeasing, we may sort through the evidence much more extensively and subject the counterevidence to our desired conclusions to particularly harsh scrutiny. In this way, effortful reasoning can be engaged in the service of producing desired impressions and judgments. We also may estimate the likelihood of events at least partially in terms of their desirability. This form of wishful thinking appears to be a ubiquitous source of bias in beliefbased reasoning (McGuire, 1960). However, the fact that our expectations tend to covary with our desires can also reflect the simultaneous operation of a mechanism whereby desires are constrained by reality—that is, just as we may want to think that desirable events are more probable, we may also determine what it is that we desire in part by assessing its attainability.

It is thus evident that the wily social perceiver has many strategies for getting what he or she wants. Via selective attention, memory, and interpretation, the world can be seen as a flattering, safe, desirable place. These positive biases may provide important coping resources for us (Taylor & Brown, 1988). However, it is important to recognize there are always some reality constraints in operation when we perceive the social environment. It is only when a suitable justification can be constructed that the perceiver is free to indulge in these positive illusions. Given the typical degree of ambiguity in social reality and the range of motivational strategies that are available, it may only rarely be the case that reality constraints are completely impervious to the distorting influence of defensive motives.

Social-Adjustive Motivation

The need for belonging and interpersonal acceptance is another powerful motivational force acting on social perceivers, as decades of research on normative social influence have documented (e.g., Baron, Kerr, & Miller, 1992). A major implication of this body of research is that social perceivers will be motivated to perceive the world in ways that win them acceptance and approval and that make them feel like worthy members of their social groups. One major component of this tendency is simple conformity to the impressions and judgments of others. For instance, hearing information that condones or criticizes prejudice can influence the types of attitudes that an individual expresses (e.g., Blanchard, Lilly, & Vaughn, 1991). One might argue that such an effect merely reflects simple compliance with clear situational demands and does not necessarily reflect motivated distortion of the person’s true inner judgments and impressions. However, similar findings have emerged even when relevant social norms are activated in very subtle and indirect ways, and when there is no audience that will be aware of whether the person conformed or failed to conform to the apparent social consensus (Wittenbrink & Henley, 1996).

There is also interesting evidence that belongingness needs can direct social attention and memory. Gardner, Pickett, and Brewer (2000) had participants engage in interactions in a computer chat room. The nature of the interaction was manipulated so that the participants would have social acceptance or rejection experiences. Following social rejection, belongingness needs were expected to be activated and to guide subsequent information processing. After the chat room experience, all participants read a diary that contained information about both social and individual events. As expected, in a subsequent memory task, the individuals who had experienced exclusion in the chat room were significantly more likely to remember the social information contained in the diary. This finding confirms the long-standing claim that the momentary needs and goals of the person are likely to play an important directive role in social cognition (e.g., Bruner, 1957; Jones & Thibaut, 1958; Klinger, 1975). The pursuit of belonging is just one of many possible goals that can serve this directive function, and a recent focus of empirical attention has been on the mechanisms through which goals guide cognition down a path toward desired outcomes (e.g., Bargh & Barndollar, 1996; Gollwitzer, 1990).

Affective States

The study of emotion is intimately tied up with the study of motivation. Just as the perceiver’s motives can influence the extent and direction of social cognition, so too do affective states play a regulatory role in shaping the course of social information processing. Moods and other emotional states can direct memory toward affectively congruent material (e.g., Forgas, 1995), influence which dimensions and attributes of objects are salient (e.g., Niedenthal, Halberstadt, & Innes-Ker, 1999), and lead perceivers to interpret ambiguous social stimuli in a manner that is consistent with the implications of their affect (e.g., Keltner, Ellsworth, & Edwards, 1993). Affective states can influence the perceived likelihood of events (e.g., Johnson & Tversky, 1983) and can themselves be used as information directing judgments when perceivers interpret their affect as being a reaction to the object of judgment (e.g., Clore, Schwarz, & Conway, 1994).

In keeping with major themes of the present review, affective and arousal states have also been hypothesized to influence attentional capacity and epistemic motivation. Thus, they may play a role in determining the extent to which social impressions are based primarily on relatively automatic, immediate reactions or instead are based on more controlled, analytic assessments. Evidence consistent with these possibilities has emerged in many domains of social cognition, including the study of stereotyping. For example, several studies suggest that happiness is associated with a tendency to think less extensively about the social environment. Instead, happy people often appear content to rely on their generic knowledge about social groups rather than taking the trouble to engage in extensive individuation of particular group members (e.g., Bodenhausen, Kramer, & Süsser, 1994; Park & Banaji, 2000; for a review, see Bodenhausen, Mussweiler, Gabriel, & Moreno, 2001). Happiness may confer a sense of confidence in initial top-down impressions that makes effortful thought processes seem subjectively unnecessary. Fluctuations in arousal can also influence information-processes resources and thereby moderate the extent of reliance upon stereotypical generalizations. For example, Bodenhausen (1990) showed that stereotype-based discrimination covaried with circadian fluctuations in mental energy. When “early birds” were tested in the morning, they showed little evidence of reliance on stereotypes, but later in the day they were much more likely to render stereotypical judgments. Conversely, “night owls” were highly likely to make stereotypical judgments in the morning, but not in the afternoon or evening. These findings suggest that low levels of circadian arousal represent a risk factor for intergroup discrimination because perceivers will lack the mental resources to marshal the effort necessary for forming more individuated impressions. At the other end of the spectrum, it is also the case that excessive amounts of arousal can prompt greater reliance on stereotypes, presumably by disrupting attentional processes (e.g., Kim & Baron, 1988).

One emerging trend in the literature on affect and social cognition is the examination and comparison of the effects of integral versus incidental sources of affect (e.g., Bodenhausen et al., 2001). Most of the previous research has focused on moods and other affective states that were triggered in contexts unrelated to the current information-processing situation.This incidental affect can be contrasted with feelings and emotions that arise in reaction to the present situation itself. This latter, integral affect, comes in two important varieties. Chronic integral affect refers to enduring feelings one has about the individual(s), group(s), or setting present when an interaction is transpiring, whereas episodic integral affect refers to momentary feelings triggered in a particular interaction. For example, if one has a fear of dentists, a trip to the dentist’s office will be imbued with chronic negative integral affect; however, if this particular trip happens to go very well, the episodic integral affect may end up being quite positive. The affective dynamics of social behavior are very likely to involve both of these kinds of integral affect, as well as the incidental affective background of moods that are brought into an interaction from previous unrelated events. Whereas a rich set of theory and data has emerged to study the incidental side of the picture, the role of integral affect in social cognition is only beginning to be explored (e.g., Moreno & Bodenhausen, 2001; Perrott & Bodenhausen, 2002). In any case it is clear that the affective and motivational context of social cognition will continued to be explored with great vigor as researchers attempt to reunite thinking and doing with feeling and wanting.


There have been many debates about the appropriate definition of social cognition—many reflect attempts to circumscribe the content domain or topics that fall within its purview. In our view, social cognition is not so much a topic area as a general perspective that can be applied to virtually any social psychological topic in which one is interested. In keeping with this perspective, we have reviewed the central conceptual themes of social cognition research, including the form and nature of mental representations, the automatic and effortful use of such representations, and the ways in which these processes are modulated by the motivational and affective context within which they occur. Although we produced examples of the use of these general principles from a limited number of topic areas (often focusing on stereotyping as a prototypical example), they could be (and have been) applied in a host of content domains, including group decision making, interpersonal conflict, relationship development, social influence, political judgment, marketing and consumer behavior, academic and athletic performance, and countless others. The fruitfulness of these various applications shows that much explanatory power can be gained when psychologists explore the workings of the so-called black box, using objectively observable aspects of task performance to derive and test inferences about how the mind goes about its business. Inevitably, much of that business is social in nature. The business of studying social cognition is to unravel the mysteries of our socially embedded minds.


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