Social Cognition in Psychology

The Way We Think About Others

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Social cognition is a sub-topic of social psychology that focuses on how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations. It focuses on the role that cognitive processes play in our social interactions. The way we think about others plays a major role in how we think, feel, and interact with the world around us.

What Is Social Cognition?

How exactly do psychologists define social cognition? While there is no single definition, there are some common factors that many experts have identified as being important.

Social cognition involves:

  • The processes involved in perceiving other people and how we come to know about the people in the world around us.
  • The study of the mental processes that are involved in perceiving, remembering, thinking about, and attending to the other people in our social world.
  • The reasons we attend to certain information about the social world, how this information is stored in memory, and how it is then used to interact with other people.

Social cognition is not simply a topic within social psychology—it is an approach to studying any subject with social psychology. Using a social-cognitive perspective, researchers can study a wide range of topics including attitudes, person-perception, prejudice, stereotypes, self-concept, discrimination, persuasion, decision-making, and other areas.


Imagine that you are getting ready to go on a blind date. Not only do you worry about the impression and signals that you are sending to the other person, but you are also concerned with interpreting the signals given by your date. How do you form an impression of this person? What meaning do you read into the other person's behavior?

This is just one example of how social cognition influences a single social interaction, but you can probably think of many more examples from your daily life. We spend a considerable portion of every day interacting with others, which is why an entire branch of psychology formed to help understand how we feel, think, and behave in social situations.


Social cognition develops in childhood and adolescence. As children grow, they become more aware not only of their own feelings, thoughts, and motives but also of the emotions and mental states of others. Children become more adept at understanding how others feel, learning how to respond in social situations, engaging in prosocial behaviors, and taking the perspective of others.

While there are many different theories that look at how social cognition develops, one of the most popular focuses on the work of the psychologist Jean Piaget. According to Piaget, a child's cognitive development goes through a series of stages.

  • During the earliest stages of development, children are very egocentric. They see the world from their own perspective and struggle to think about how other people may view the world.
  • As children grow older, children become increasingly adept at perspective-taking and have an increased ability to think about how and why people act the way they do in social situations.

More recently, research has provided evidence that children develop the ability to think about the perspectives of other people at an earlier age than Piaget previously believed. Even young preschoolers exhibit some ability to think about how other people might view a situation.

One of the most important developments in the early emergence of social cognition is the growth of a theory of mind. A theory of mind refers to a person's ability to understand and think about the mental states of other people.

It is the emergence of a theory of mind that is critical to being able to consider the thoughts, motives, desires, needs, feelings, and experiences that other people may have. Being able to think about how these mental states can influence how people act is critical to forming social impressions and explaining how and why people do the things that they do.

Cultural Differences

Social psychologists have also found that there are often important cultural differences in social cognition. When looking at a social situation, any two people may have wildly different interpretations. Each person brings a unique background of experiences, knowledge, social influences, feelings, and cultural variations.

Some researchers have found that there are also collective, cultural influences that can affect how people interpret social situations. The same social behavior in one cultural setting may have a very different meaning and interpretation if it was to take place or be observed in another culture.

As people interpret behavior, extract meaning from the interaction, and then act based upon their beliefs about the situation, they are then further reinforcing and reproducing the cultural norms that influence their social cognitions.

Research and Challenges

Research into social cognition is ongoing. But there are also challenges to some established theories.

Future Areas of Study

So what are some of the different questions related to social cognition that researchers are interested in understanding? Our perceptions of others play such an important role in how we forge relationships, how we interact with others, how we treat others, and how others treat us.

Some of the topics that psychologists are interested in when it comes to social cognition include:

  • How do we develop attitudes? What role do these attitudes play in our social lives?
  • How do we interpret other people's feelings and emotions? How do we figure out what they are thinking or feeling? What cues or indicators do we use to make these assumptions?
  • How is self-concept formed and how does it influence our relationships with others?
  • What influence do our thoughts have on our feelings?
  • What mental processes influence person perception, or how we form impressions of other people?


One criticism of some of the research on social cognition suggests that it is too focused on individualistic behavior. Because the topic itself is so social, some suggest that many of the information-processing models that have traditionally been used to understand the cognitive processes behind social cognition are too limited. Focusing on the collective and interactive aspects of human thought may provide a better understanding of how people think about and understand social behavior.

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  • Frith CD. Social cognitionPhilos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2008;363(1499):2033-9. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0005

  • Moskowitz, GB. Social Cognition: Understanding Self and Others. Guilford Press: New York; 2013.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.