Social Cognition And Affect Research Paper

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The role of affect in social cognition has fascinated writers and philosophers since the dawn of antiquity. Starting with Plato, many theorists saw affect as a potentially dangerous, invasive force that subverts rational thinking. However, recent advances in social cognition, neuroanatomy, and psychophysiology suggest that affect is often a useful and even essential component of adaptive responding to social situations. The 1980s and 1990s produced something like an ‘affective revolution’ in psychology. Indeed, most of what we know about the role of affect in social thinking has been discovered since the early 1980s. As a result, we are now in a better position than ever before to pursue the age-old quest to understand the relationship between the rational and the emotional aspects of human nature. This research paper will consider early research on affect and social thinking, followed by a survey of contemporary theories and substantive research areas. The behavioral consequences of affect, and integrative theories of affect and social cognition, will also be discussed.



1. Background

Although affect has long been recognized as having a critical influence on thinking and judgments, empirical research on this link is quite recent. Psychologists traditionally studied the three fundamental faculties of the human mind—affect, cognition, and conation—as independent, isolated entities. Radical behaviorism consigned affect into the ‘black box’ of irrelevant mental phenomena, and the objective of most cognitive research was the study of cold, affectless ideation. The idea that affect is an integral and often adaptive part of how information about the social world is processed was not seriously entertained until the early 1980s. In a radical departure, Robert Zajonc argued that affective reactions often constitute the primary response to social stimuli and may influence subsequent attitudes and behaviors even in the absence of any cognitive memory trace (e.g., Zajonc 2000). Affective reactions such as feelings of anxiety, intimacy, or pleasure are also critical to cognitive representations of social experiences. More importantly, affect has a dynamic influence on memory, thinking, and judgments. Such ‘affect infusion’ was explained initially in terms of either psychodynamic or associationist principles.

Psychoanalytic theories suggested that affect has an invasive quality and can ‘take over’ thinking and judgments unless adequate psychological control is exerted. Attempts to suppress affect may increase the ‘pressure’ and could cause affect infusion into unrelated thoughts and judgments. In contrast, conditioning theories maintained that reactions to previously neutral social objects can be conditioned by simultaneous exposure to emotion-arousing stimuli. Consistent with this idea, investigators found that people who feel good or bad report significantly more negative or positive attitudes towards social stimuli. Byrne and Clore (1970) relied on this principle to explain the influence of affect on interpersonal attitudes and attraction.

2. Contemporary Cognitive Theories Of Affect And Social Cognition

In contrast to psychoanalytic and conditioning accounts, contemporary cognitive theories focus on the information-processing mechanisms that link affect and cognition. Two kinds of mechanisms have been proposed: memory-based accounts (e.g., the affectpriming model; see Bower 1981, Forgas 1995), and inferential models (e.g., the affect-as-information model; see Clore et al. 1994). In addition, several theories highlight the influence of affect on information-processing strategies (Bless 2000, Fiedler 2000).

2.1 Memory Models

Affect may influence access to positively or negatively valenced ideas, producing more affect-congruent thoughts and judgments by happy or sad people. The associative network model proposed by Bower (1981) suggested that affect and cognition are integrally linked within an associative network of mental representations. Affect will prime associated thoughts and ideas that are more likely to be used in constructive cognitive tasks. However, affect priming is subject to important boundary conditions. Mood-state dependence in memory is more likely when the affective state is strong, salient, and self-relevant, and the task involves the active generation and elaboration of information (Eich and Macauley 2000).

2.2 Inferential Models

Alternatively, rather than computing a judgment on the basis of recalled features of a target, individuals may simply ask themselves, ‘How do I feel about it?’ and in doing so, may use their mood to infer a reaction to the target. The ‘how-do-I-feel-about-it’ heuristic thus involves an inferential error: People misattribute their prevailing affect to an incorrect source. This theory is similar to conditioning approaches (Byrne and Clore 1970), as well as more recent work on misattribution, and research on judgmental heuristics. Accumulating evidence suggests that affect is most likely to be used as a heuristic cue when people are unfamiliar with the task, have no prior responses to fall back on, involvement is low, and cognitive resources are limited (Clore et al. 1994, Forgas 1995). Calling attention to the source of affect can reduce or even eliminate this effect. The affect-as-information model assumes that affect has invariant informational properties. Critics argue, however, that the informational value of affective states is not given but depends on the situation. The affect-as-information model has little to say about how affect and the stimulus information, and internal knowledge structures, are combined in producing a response. In that sense, this is more a theory of nonjudgment or aborted judgment rather than a theory of social judgment. Social cognitive tasks that require some degree of processing are more likely to be influenced by affect-priming rather than affect-as-information mechanisms.

2.3 Affect And Information Processing

In addition to informational effects (influencing what people think), affect can also influence the process of cognition, that is, how people think. It has been suggested that positive affect promotes less effortful and more superficial processing strategies, while negative affect triggers a more systematic and vigilant processing style. However, recent studies show that positive affect can also produce processing advantages. Happy people seem to adopt more creative and constructive thinking styles, use broader categories, show greater mental flexibility and perform better on secondary tasks (Bless 2000, Fiedler 2000). Explanations of mood effects on processing style at first emphasized the influence of affect on processing capacity. However, evidence for such accounts remains inconsistent. Alternative, motivational accounts suggest that people experiencing positive mood may try to maintain this pleasant state by refraining from any effortful activity. In contrast, negative affect may motivate people to engage in vigilant, effortful processing. Such a ‘cognitive tuning’ account seems consistent with evolutionary ideas about the adaptive functions of affect.

More recently, Bless (2000) and Fiedler (2000) argued that positive and negative affective states trigger equally effortful, but qualitatively different processing styles. Thus, positive affect promotes a more assimilative, schema-based, top-down processing style, where pre-existing ideas, attitudes and representations dominate information processing. In contrast, negative affect produces a more accommodative, bottom-up and externally focused processing strategy where attention to situational information drives thinking.

3. The Empirical Evidence

A growing number of empirical studies illustrate the role of affect in thinking and judgments in such areas as the perception of self and other people, the use of stereotypes, intergroup attitudes, attitude change, and persuasion.

3.1 Affect And Social Perception

Affect has a significant influence on how people respond to others (Forgas 2001). According to memory-based theories, affect infusion into social judgments is due to greater availability of affectively primed information when interpreting ambiguous social behaviors. Thus, a smile that may be seen as ‘friendly’ in a good mood could be judged as ‘awkward’ or ‘condescending’ by an observer experiencing negative affect. Surprisingly, these mood effects seem to be greater when people need to think more extensively about a more complex or unusual person, as confirmed by studies measuring reaction times and processing latencies. The more ambiguous the target, the more people will need to rely on their stored knowledge about the world to make sense of these stimuli. Such affect infusion effects also occur in realistic interpersonal judgments when people evaluate their real-life interpersonal relationships (Forgas 1995, 2001).

3.2 Affect And The Self

Affect has a particularly strong influence on self-related attitudes and judgments (Sedikides 1995): Positive affect improves, and negative affect impairs, the valence of self-conceptions. Thus, students in a negative mood tend to blame themselves more for failing, and those in a positive mood claim more credit for success in an exam (Forgas 1995). More recent studies indicate that affect congruence in self-related thinking is subject to a number of boundary conditions. Affect infusion into self-judgments is more likely when the task requires open, constructive thinking. Compared with peripheral self-conceptions, central and familiar self-conceptions that require less elaboration also show reduced affect sensitivity (Sedikides 1995). Low self-esteem persons generally also have less certain and stable self-conceptions, and affect appears to have less of an influence on their self-judgments. Affect intensity and motivational factors also moderate mood congruency effects. Overall, affect seems to have a strong mood-congruent influence on many self-related attitudes and judgments, but only when some degree of open and constructive processing is required, and there are no motivational forces to override affect congruence.

Positive affect may also serve as a resource that allows people to overcome defensiveness and deal with potentially threatening information about themselves. People in a positive mood appear to be more willing to expose themselves voluntarily to threatening but diagnostic information. It seems that positive mood functions as a buffer, enabling people to handle the affective costs of receiving negative information, as long as the negative feedback is seen as useful (Trope et al. 2001).

3.3 Affect And Stereotyping

Early theories based on the frustration–aggression hypothesis and psychoanalytic notions of projection implied that negative affect may directly produce negative responses to disliked groups. Conditioning theories offered an alternative explanation of such effects, and also suggested that increased contact with outgroup members in positive situations should reduce aversive feelings and improve intergroup relations, a prediction that received considerable support (the so-called ‘contact hypothesis’). Positive affect may also promote more inclusive cognitive categorizations of social groups, thus reducing intergroup distinctions (Bodenhausen and Moreno 2001). Individual differences such as trait anxiety can also significantly moderate the influence of negative affect on intergroup judgments; paradoxically, highly anxious people seem to show reduced intergroup discrimination when in an aversive mood. Affect is thus likely to influence intergroup judgments both by influencing the information processing strategies adopted, and the way positive and negative information about outgroups is selected and used.

3.4 Affect In Persuasion And Attitude Change

Writers on rhetoric have long assumed that producing an emotional response in an audience is an important prerequisite for effective persuasion. Recent dualprocess theories of persuasion suggest that response to a persuasive message depends on the particular information-processing strategy people use, partly influenced by mood (Petty et al. 2001). For example, college students are significantly more likely to agree with persuasive messages advocating comprehensive exams when they are interviewed on a pleasant, sunny day rather than an unpleasant, rainy day. In general, affect should selectively prime mood-congruent thoughts and should influence responses to persuasion when a systematic, central-route strategy is adopted. However, people in a positive mood often process persuasive messages more superficially, and respond to both low-quality and high-quality messages the same way (Petty et al. 2001). Sad persons, in contrast, seem to be more persuaded by high-quality messages, consistent with their more externally focused and bottom-up information-processing style (Bless 2000).

3.5 Affect And Cognitive Dissonance

The experience of dissonance between attitudes and behaviors is a potent mechanism that produces attitude change. Cognitive dissonance involves negative affect because discrepancy among cognitions undermines our clear and certain knowledge about the world, and thus our ability to engage in effective action (Harmon-Jones 2001). Studies suggest that positive affect decreases, and negative affect increases, dissonance reduction and attitude change. Once consonance is restored, affective state also tends to improve. However, much work remains to be done in discovering the precise cognitive mechanisms responsible for these effects.

3.6 Affect, Cognition And Social Behavior

Affect can influence not only social cognition but also subsequent social behaviors. People need to evaluate and plan their behaviors in inherently complex and uncertain social situations. Positive affect may thus prime positive information and produce more confident, friendly, and cooperative ‘approach’ attitudes and behaviors, whereas negative affect should prime negative memories and produce avoidant, defensive, or unfriendly attitudes and behaviors. Research shows that people in a happy mood respond more positively when approached with an impromptu request, and produce more confident and more direct requests themselves in a variety of social situations. These effects also influence real-life interpersonal behaviors. Further, affect infusion into attitudes and behaviors is greater when more elaborate, substantive processing is required to produce a strategic response in more complex social situations. Affective states also play an important role in elaborately planned interpersonal encounters such as the planning and performance of complex negotiating encounters (Forgas 2001). Why do these effects occur? When people face an uncertain and unpredictable social encounter, such as a negotiating task, they need to rely on open, constructive processing in order to formulate new plans to guide their interpersonal behaviors. Affect can selectively prime more affect-congruent thoughts and associations, and these ideas will ultimately influence people’s plans and behaviors. However, affective influences on social behaviors are highly process-dependent: affect infusion is increased or reduced depending on just how much open, constructive processing is required to deal with a more or less demanding interpersonal task.

3.7 Integrative Theories: The Affect Infusion Model

Affective states thus have powerful informational and processing effects on the way people perceive, interpret, and represent social information. It is also clear, however, that affective influences on social cognition are highly context-sensitive. A recent integrative theory, the Affect Infusion Model (AIM; Forgas 1995) argued that affect infusion should only occur in circumstances that promote an open, constructive processing style. Constructive or generative processing may be defined here as genuinely open-ended, generative thinking that involves the selective search for, and on-line elaboration of, external information, and the constructive combination of stimulus details with internal knowledge structures that results in the creation of a new response. In contrast, merely reconstructive processing involves the retrieval and use of a previously computed response, with no online elaboration or stimulus details (Fiedler 2000).

The AIM identifies four alternative processing strategies: direct access, motivated, heuristic, and substantive processing. These four strategies differ in terms of two basic dimensions: the degree of effort exerted, and the degree of openness or constructiveness of the information search strategy. The combination of these two processing features, quantity (effort), and quality (openness), produces four distinct processing styles: substantive processing (high effort/open, constructive), motivated processing (high effort/closed), heuristic processing (low effort/open, constructive), and direct access processing (low effort/closed).

Direct access processing occurs when a pre-existing, stored response is directly accessed and used without any on-line elaboration. Motivated processing is driven by a strong pre-existing motivational objective that determines information search strategies and thus limits the likelihood that incidentally primed, affective information will be incorporated into the response. Heuristic processing, although a constructive process, is based on the limited consideration of information, and the use of mental shortcuts and heuristics (such as the affect-as-information heuristics) whenever possible. It is only substantive processing that involves the full and elaborate processing of stimulus information and the constructive integration of stimulus details with primed memories and associations. According to the AIM, mood congruence and affect infusion is most likely when constructive processing is used, such as substantive or heuristic processing. In contrast, affect is unlikely to affect the outcome of closed, merely reconstructive tasks involving motivated or direct access processing (see also Fiedler 2000).

4. Conclusion

The evidence shows that mild everyday affective states can have a highly significant influence on the way people perceive and interpret social situations. Further, several of the experiments discussed here show that different information-processing strategies play a key role in moderating these effects. Affect infusion influences not only attitudes and judgments but also interpersonal behaviors, such as the monitoring and interpretation of observed encounters; the formulation of, and responses to, requests; and the planning and execution of strategic negotiations. In contrast, affect infusion is absent whenever a social cognitive task could be performed using a simple, well-rehearsed direct access strategy, or a highly motivated strategy. Obviously a great deal more research is needed before we can fully understand the multiple influences that affect has on attitudes, judgments, and interpersonal behavior.


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