- Provide examples of how salience and accessibility influence information processing.
- Review, differentiate, and give examples of the cognitive heuristics that influence social judgment.
- Summarize and give examples of the importance of social cognition in everyday life.
Once we have developed a set of schemas and attitudes, we naturally use that information to help us judge and respond to others. Our expectations help us think about, size up, and make sense of individuals, groups of people, and the relationships among people. If we have learned, for example, that someone is friendly and interested in us, we are likely to approach them; if we have learned that they are threatening or unlikable, we will be more likely to withdraw. And if we believe that a person has committed a crime, we may process new information in a manner that helps convince us that our judgment was correct. In this section, we will consider how we use our stored knowledge to come to accurate (and sometimes inaccurate) conclusions about our social worlds. Table 2.1 “How Expectations Influence Our Social Cognition” summarizes the concepts that we will discuss, some of the many ways that our existing schemas and attitudes influence how we respond to the information around us.
Table 2.1 How Expectations Influence Our Social Cognition
|Cognitive accessibility||Some schemas and attitudes are more accessible than others.||We may think a lot about our new haircut because it is important to us.|
|Salience||Some stimuli, such as those that are unusual, colorful, or moving, grab our attention.||We may base our judgments on a single unusual event and ignore hundreds of other events that are more usual.|
|Representativeness heuristic||We tend to make judgments according to how well the event matches our expectations.||After a coin has come up heads many times in a row, we may erroneously think that the next flip is more likely to be tails.|
|Availability heuristic||Things that come to mind easily tend to be seen as more common.||We may overestimate the crime statistics in our own area because these crimes are so easy to recall.|
|Anchoring and adjustment||Although we try to adjust our judgments away from them, our decisions are overly based on the things that are most highly accessible in memory.||We may buy more of a product when it is advertised in bulk than when it is advertised as a single item.|
|Counterfactual thinking||We may “replay” events such that they turn out differently—especially when only minor changes in the events leading up to them make a difference.||We may feel particularly bad about events that might not have occurred if only a small change might have prevented them.|
|False consensus bias||We tend to see other people as similar to us.||We are surprised when other people have different political opinions or values.|
|Overconfidence||We tend to have more confidence in our skills, abilities, and judgments than is objectively warranted.||Eyewitnesses are often extremely confident that their identifications are accurate, even when they are not.|
Automatic Versus Controlled Cognition
A good part of both cognition and social cognition is spontaneous or automatic. Automatic cognition refers to thinking that occurs out of our awareness, quickly, and without taking much effort (Ferguson & Bargh, 2003; Ferguson, Hassin, & Bargh, 2008). The things that we do most frequently tend to become more automatic each time we do them, until they reach a level where they don’t really require us to think about them very much. Most of us can ride a bike and operate a television remote control in an automatic way. Even though it took some work to do these things when we were first learning them, it just doesn’t take much effort anymore. And because we spend a lot of time making judgments about others, many of these judgments (and particularly those about people we don’t know very well and who don’t matter much to us) are made automatically (Willis & Todorov, 2006).
Because automatic thinking occurs outside of our conscious awareness, we frequently have no idea that it is occurring and influencing our judgments or behaviors. You might remember a time when you came back from your classes, opened the door to your dorm room, and 30 seconds later couldn’t remember where you had put your keys! You know that you must have used the keys to get in, and you know you must have put them somewhere, but you simply don’t remember a thing about it. Because many of our everyday judgments and behaviors are performed “on automatic,” we may not always be aware that they are occurring or influencing us.
It is of course a good thing that many things operate automatically because it would be a real pain to have to think about them all the time. If you couldn’t drive a car automatically, you wouldn’t be able to talk to the other people riding with you or listen to the radio at the same time—you’d have to be putting most of your attention into driving. On the other hand, relying on our snap judgments about Bianca—that she’s likely to be expressive, for instance—can be erroneous. Sometimes we need to—and should—go beyond automatic cognition and consider people more carefully. When we deliberately size up and think about something—for instance another person—we call it thoughtful cognition or controlled cognition.
Although you might think that controlled cognition would be more common and that automatic thinking would be less likely, that is not always the case. The problem is that thinking takes effort and time, and we often don’t have too much of those things available. As a result, we frequently rely on automatic cognition, and these processes—acting outside of our awareness—have a big effect on our behaviors. In the following Research Focus, we will consider an example of a study that uses a common social cognitive procedure known as priming—a technique in which information is temporarily brought into memory through exposure to situational events—and that shows that priming can influence judgments entirely out of awareness.
Behavioral Effects of Priming
In one demonstration of how automatic cognition can influence our behaviors without us being aware of them, John Bargh and his colleagues (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996) conducted two studies, each with the exact same procedure. In the experiments, they showed college students sets of five scrambled words. The students were to unscramble the five words in each set to make a sentence. Furthermore, for half of the research participants, the words were related to the stereotype of the elderly. These participants saw words such as “in Florida retired live people” and “bingo man the forgetful plays.”
The other half of the research participants also made sentences but did so out of words that had nothing to do with the elderly stereotype. The purpose of this task was to prime (activate) the schema of elderly people in memory for some of the participants but not for others.
The experimenters then assessed whether the priming of elderly stereotypes would have any effect on the students’ behavior—and indeed it did. When each research participant had gathered all his or her belongings, thinking that the experiment was over, the experimenter thanked him or her for participating and gave directions to the closest elevator. Then, without the participant knowing it, the experimenters recorded the amount of time that the participant spent walking from the doorway of the experimental room toward the elevator. As you can see in the following figure, the same results were found in both experiments—the participants who had made sentences using words related to the elderly stereotype took on the behaviors of the elderly—they walked significantly more slowly (in fact, about 12% more slowly across the two studies) as they left the experimental room.
To determine if these priming effects occurred out of the conscious awareness of the participants, Bargh and his colleagues asked a third group of students to complete the priming task and then to indicate whether they thought the words they had used to make the sentences had any relationship to each other or could possibly have influenced their behavior in any way. These students had no awareness of the possibility that the words might have been related to the elderly or could have influenced their behavior.
The point of these experiments, and many others like them, is clear—it is quite possible that our judgments and behaviors are influenced by our social situations, and this influence may be entirely outside of our conscious awareness. To return again to Bianca, it is even possible that we notice her nationality and that our beliefs about Italians influence our responses to her, even though we have no idea that they are doing so and really believe that they have not. It is in this way that our stereotypes may have their insidious effects, and it is exactly these processes that may have led to a mistaken eyewitness account in the case of Rickie Johnson.
Salience and Accessibility Determine Which Expectations We Use
We each have a large number of schemas that we might bring to bear on any type of judgment we might make. When thinking about Bianca, for instance, we might focus on her nationality, her gender, her physical attractiveness, her intelligence, or any of many other possible features. And we will react to Bianca differently depending on which schemas we use. Schema activation is determined both by characteristics of the person we are judging—the salience of the characteristics—and by the current activation of the schema in the individual—the cognitive accessibility of the schema.
One determinant of which schemas are likely to be used in social judgment is the extent to which we attend to particular features of the person or situation that we are responding to. We are more likely to judge people on the basis of characteristics that are salient, meaning that they attract our attention when we see something or someone with them. Things that are unusual, negative, colorful, bright, and moving are more salient and thus more likely to be attended to than are things that do not have these characteristics (McArthur & Post, 1977; Taylor & Fiske, 1978).
We are more likely to initially judge people on the basis of their sex, race, age, and physical attractiveness, rather than on, say, their religious orientation or their political beliefs, in part because these features are so salient when we see them (Brewer, 1988). Another thing that makes something particularly salient is its infrequency or unusualness. Because Bianca is from Italy and very few other people in our school are, that characteristic is something that we notice—it is salient, and we are therefore likely to attend to it. That she is also a woman is—at least in this context—less salient.
The salience of the stimuli in our social worlds may sometimes lead us to make judgments on the basis of information that is actually less informative than is other less salient information. Imagine, for instance, that you wanted to buy a new music player for yourself. You’ve been trying to decide whether to get the iPod or the Zune. You went online and checked out Consumer Reports, and you found that although the players differed on many dimensions, including price, battery life, ability to share music, and so forth, the Zune was nevertheless rated significantly higher by the owners than was the iPod. As a result, you decide to go purchase one the next day. That night, however, you go to a party, and a friend of yours shows you her iPod. You check it out, and it seems really great. You tell her that you were thinking of buying a Zune, and she tells you that you are crazy. She says she knows someone who had one and had a lot of problems—it didn’t download music right, the battery went out right after it went out of warranty, and so forth—and that she would never buy one. Would you still buy the Zune, or would you switch your plans?
If you think about this question logically, the information that you just got from your friend isn’t really all that important—you now know the opinions of one more person, but that can’t really change the overall consumer ratings of the two machines very much. On the other hand, the information your friend gives you and the chance to use her iPod are highly salient. The information is right there in front of you, in your hand, whereas the statistical information from Consumer Reports is only in the form of a table that you saw on your computer. The outcome in cases such as this is that people frequently ignore the less salient, but more important, information, such as the likelihood that events occur across a large population—these statistics are known as base rates—in favor of the actually less important, but nevertheless more salient, information.
Another case in which we ignore base-rate information occurs when we use the representativeness heuristic (remember that heuristic refers to a simplifying strategy that we use to make judgments). The representativeness heuristic occurs when we base our judgments on information that seems to represent, or match, what we expect will happen while ignoring more informative base-rate information. Consider, for instance, the following puzzle. Let’s say that you went to a hospital, and you checked the records of the babies that were born today (Table 2.2 “Using the Representativeness Heuristic”). Which pattern of births do you think that you are most likely to find?
Table 2.2 Using the Representativeness Heuristic
|List A||List B|
|6:31 a.m.||Girl||6:31 a.m.||Boy|
|8:15 a.m.||Girl||8:15 a.m.||Girl|
|9:42 a.m.||Girl||9:42 a.m.||Boy|
|1:13 p.m.||Girl||1:13 p.m.||Girl|
|3:39 p.m.||Boy||3:39 p.m.||Girl|
|5:12 p.m.||Boy||5:12 p.m.||Boy|
|7:42 p.m.||Boy||7:42 p.m.||Girl|
|11:44 p.m.||Boy||11:44 p.m.||Boy|
Most people think that list B is more likely, probably because list B looks more random and thus matches (is “representative of”) our ideas about randomness. But statisticians know that any pattern of four girls and four boys is equally likely and thus that List B is no more likely than List A. The problem is that we have an image of what randomness should be, which doesn’t always match what is rationally the case. Similarly, people who see a coin that comes up heads five times in a row will frequently predict (and perhaps even bet!) that tails will be next—it just seems like it has to be. But mathematically, this erroneous expectation (known as the gambler’s fallacy) is simply not true: The base-rate likelihood of any single coin flip being tails is only 50%, regardless of how many times it has come up heads in the past.
To take one more example, consider the following information:
I have a friend who is short, shy, and writes poetry. Which of the following is she? (Choose one.)
—A professor of psychology
—A professor of Chinese
Can you see how you might be led, potentially incorrectly, into thinking that my friend is a professor of Chinese? Why? Because the description (“short, shy, and writes poetry”) just seems so representative or stereotypical of our expectations about Chinese people. But the base rates tell us something completely different, which might make us wary. For one, because I am a psychology professor, it’s much more likely that I know more psychology professors than Chinese professors. And at least on my campus, the number of professors in the psychology department is much bigger than the number of professors of Chinese. Although base rates suggest that “psychology” would be the right answer, the use of the representative heuristic might lead us (probably incorrectly) to guess “Chinese” instead.
Although which characteristics we use to think about objects or people is determined in part by the salience of their characteristics (our perceptions are influenced by our social situation), individual differences in the person who is doing the judging are also important (our perceptions are influenced by person variables). People vary in the schemas that they find important to use when judging others and when thinking about themselves. One way to consider this importance is in terms of the cognitive accessibility of the schema. Cognitive accessibility refers to the extent to which a schema is activated in memory and thus likely to be used in information processing.
You probably know people who are golf nuts (or maybe tennis or some other sport nuts). All they can talk about is golf. For them, we would say that golf is a highly accessible construct. Because they love golf, it is important to their self-concept; they set many of their goals in terms of the sport, and they tend to think about things and people in terms of it (“if he plays golf, he must be a good person!”). Other people have highly accessible schemas about eating healthy food, exercising, environmental issues, or really good coffee, for instance. In short, when a schema is accessible, we are likely to use it to make judgments of ourselves and others.
Although accessibility can be considered a person variable (a given idea is more highly accessible for some people than for others), accessibility can also be influenced by situational factors. When we have recently or frequently thought about a given topic, that topic becomes more accessible and is likely to influence our judgments. This is in fact the explanation for the results of the priming study you read about earlier—people walked slower because the concept of elderly had been primed and thus was currently highly accessible for them.
Because we rely so heavily on our schemas and attitudes—and particularly on those that are salient and accessible—we can sometimes be overly influenced by them. Imagine, for instance, that I asked you to close your eyes and determine whether there are more words in the English language that begin with the letter R or that have the letter R as the third letter. You would probably try to solve this problem by thinking of words that have each of the characteristics. It turns out that most people think there are more words that begin with R, even though there are in fact more words that have R as the third letter.
You can see that this error can occur as a result of cognitive accessibility. To answer the question, we naturally try to think of all the words that we know that begin with R and that have R in the third position. The problem is that when we do that, it is much easier to retrieve the former than the latter, because we store words by their first, not by their third, letter. We may also think that our friends are nice people because we see them primarily when they are around us (their friends). And the traffic might seem worse in our own neighborhood than we think it is in other places, in part because nearby traffic jams are more accessible for us than are traffic jams that occur somewhere else. And do you think it is more likely that you will be killed in a plane crash or in a car crash? Many people fear the former, even though the latter is much more likely: Your chances of being involved in an aircraft accident are about 1 in 11 million, whereas your chances of being killed in an automobile accident are 1 in 5,000—over 50,000 people are killed on U.S. highways every year. In this case, the problem is that plane crashes, which are highly salient, are more easily retrieved from our memory than are car crashes, which are less extreme.
The tendency to make judgments of the frequency of an event, or the likelihood that an event will occur, on the basis of the ease with which the event can be retrieved from memory is known as the availability heuristic (Schwarz & Vaughn, 2002; Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). The idea is that things that are highly accessible (in this case, the term availability is used) come to mind easily and thus may overly influence our judgments. Thus, despite the clear facts, it may be easier to think of plane crashes than of car crashes because the former are so highly salient. If so, the availability heuristic can lead to errors in judgments.
Still another way that the cognitive accessibility of constructs can influence information processing is through their effects on processing fluency. Processing fluency refers to the ease with which we can process information in our environments. When stimuli are highly accessible, they can be quickly attended to and processed, and they therefore have a large influence on our perceptions. This influence is due, in part, to the fact that our body reacts positively to information that we can process quickly, and we use this positive response as a basis of judgment (Reber, Winkielman, & Schwarz, 1998; Winkielman & Cacioppo, 2001).
In one study demonstrating this effect, Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues (Schwarz et al., 1991) asked one set of college students to list 6 occasions when they had acted either assertively or unassertively and asked another set of college students to list 12 such examples. Schwarz determined that for most students, it was pretty easy to list 6 examples but pretty hard to list 12.
The researchers then asked the participants to indicate how assertive or unassertive they actually were. You can see from Figure 2.4 “Processing Fluency” that the ease of processing influenced judgments. The participants who had an easy time listing examples of their behavior (because they only had to list 6 instances) judged that they did in fact have the characteristics they were asked about (either assertive or unassertive), in comparison with the participants who had a harder time doing the task (because they had to list 12 instances). Other research has found similar effects—people rate that they ride their bicycles more often after they have been asked to recall only a few rather than many instances of doing so (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 1999), and they hold an attitude with more confidence after being asked to generate few rather than many arguments that support it (Haddock, Rothman, Reber, & Schwarz, 1999).
We are likely to use this type of quick and “intuitive” processing, based on our feelings about how easy it is to complete a task, when we don’t have much time or energy for more in-depth processing, such as when we are under time pressure, tired, or unwilling to process the stimulus in sufficient detail. Of course, it is very adaptive to respond to stimuli quickly (Sloman, 2002; Stanovich & West, 2002; Winkielman, Schwarz, & Nowak, 2002), and it is not impossible that in at least some cases, we are better off making decisions based on our initial responses than on a more thoughtful cognitive analysis (Loewenstein, weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001). For instance, Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren, and van Baaren (2006) found that when participants were given tasks requiring decisions that were very difficult to make on the basis of a cognitive analysis of the problem, they made better decisions when they didn’t try to analyze the details carefully but simply relied on their unconscious intuition.
In sum, people are influenced not only by the information they get but by how they get it. We are more highly influenced by things that are salient and accessible and thus easily attended to, remembered, and processed. On the other hand, information that is harder to access from memory, is less likely to be attended to, or takes more effort to consider is less likely to be used in our judgments, even if this information is statistically equally informative or even more informative.