The contribution of experimental approaches in informing understanding of social cognition.

March 2, 2010


This essay considers the extent to which experimental approaches have contributed to understanding about social cognition, that is, about the way in which people perceive, understand and explain events and situations in their social environment. Experimental social psychology attempts to capture the intricacy of social perception, cognition and attribution in a laboratory situation. When implementing experimental research in social psychology, data are often sought about how people react to and interpret social situations. In order to achieve this, whilst maintaining control over the experiment, researchers have developed numerous strategies to make the experiment reliable in a laboratory One method used to achieve this is through asking research participants to respond to vignettes conceived by the researcher. A vignette is a brief narrative of an occurrence, situation or behaviour. An example of a vignette is McArthur’s (1972) study testing a model of attribution in which she used descriptions of 16 different behaviours to measure the effect on causal attributions made by participants. As a rule, social experiments based on vignettes show that people use information relating to consensus, consistency and distinctiveness in ways predicted by the theory.

Experimental approaches in social cognition

Social cognition uses questions that can be tested using experimental designs. It can also use closed format questionnaires, or questions relating to values or beliefs. These approaches do not, however, necessarily reveal how people feel about certain issues. This element of social cognition may need a different method, which is one in which unprompted meanings and interpretations of thinking emerge naturally rather than through the imposition by researchers of quantitative measures and comparative questionnaires, which all have their limitations in eliciting open responses. As the social world involves not only basic cognitive processes but also the environmental context in which social cognition takes place, the experimental study of social cognition allows only particular types of tasks to be undertaken in a laboratory situation, and certain types of questions to be asked. However, the experimental study of social cognition does attempt to make generalisations about how information is processed by people with respect to the social world. Such research may also contribute to a greater understanding of people by providing data about their motives. Recent research into social cognition moves the locus of control more towards the individual, and away from the mechanics of the cognitive system. For example Ruscher et al (2000) argue that in situations where we are dependent upon others as well as ourselves, we may seek out information that sits outside the schema.

Schematic processing

Experimental studies may be used to investigate schematic processing. Schematic processing is an efficient, but limiting, method of processing information based on schemas, which are structures which contain specific knowledge. The fundamental cognitive process involved in schematic processing is categorisation. Although schematic processing is generally seen as an effective and efficient way of interpreting social experiences it may produce biases or perceptual distortions that are problematic. Schematic processing may be described in terms of being an automatic process, occurring without any conscious human control. The concept of motivation however, complicates matters. This is evident in the extent to which, within the cognitive processes, people may automatically make decisions in the context of uncertainty. Fiske and Taylor (1991) have raised this issue as being problematic. It can be seen that although schematic processing is mainly automatic and operating below conscious levels, it can be influenced by motivational conditions and purposes.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory proposes that people differentiate between internal factors and external factors in their attempts to understand the causes of behaviour. It aims to describe and clarify the processes involved in attributing reasons to people’s behaviour. This is done through asking questions relating to information processing and decision making. Certain behaviour may be explained through internal factors or through external factors. Heider (1958) argued that all attributions of causality could be interpreted in terms of these two factors and he saw them as representations of an aspect of causality. He argued that the more a person’s behaviour is attributed to internal factors, the less it may be attributed to external circumstances. However, it may also be argued that attribution theories place an over-reliance on the rationality of human reasoning. Another important issue to consider with respect to attribution theory is the assumption that people are concerned to find reasons for their behaviour in the same way as an experimental researcher. Attribution theories are primarily concerned with receiving and interpreting information. The problem is that information is often provided in the context of particular motive. If attribution theory is a legitimate social psychological theory, it should incorporate these genuine, human motives within its paradigm. It does not always do this, however. Joffe’s (1999) findings in the HIV/AIDS study use a methodology that supports the findings of attribution theory and the biases that the information processing approach has identified, although her interpretation takes a different direction.


Experimental methods make a contribution in informing about the way people perceive, understand and explain their social environment. There are both strengths and limitations of the experimental approach in social psychology, especially in the way it has been applied in the area of social cognition. Billig (1987) is a social psychologist who no longer operates within the experimental social psychology field. He has argued that ‘social thinking’ (thinking about people and their experiences) involves far more than working outside the constraints of an automated cognitive system. He argues that thinking is an ‘internal movement’ between different perspectives, instead of merely simply taking one schema and adjusting it accordingly. When experimental social psychology is used in the context of social cognition, it incorporates two concepts of human psychological operation. These are the information processing approach (cognitive psychology) and the concept that people are intuitive researchers seeking truths in a rational manner (social psychology). Both these assumptions have been subsumed into experimental social psychology theory, especially in attribution theory. This results in a set of assumptions about logical methods of perceiving the environment in prescriptive ways. Value-driven information processing or biases are therefore often seen as substandard judgements. Experimental methods make a contribution to understanding social cognition. It is important to consider the theories and models which these experimental studies have set out to test to gauge their appropriateness, since empirical research and theoretical perspectives are intrinsically linked. They may enhance our understanding of how we perceive and explain our social world. However, non-experimental studies may also complement, conflict and co-exist with experimental approaches in informing our understanding of social cognition.


The strengths of experimental social psychology are linked to their theories, their methods of hypothesis testing and their contribution to the growth of a corpus of knowledge in this area. There are however, certain questions that cannot be asked using experimental methods. For example, research into naturalistic thinking about risk uncovers a complex way of thinking about risky behaviour which would not match the expectations of quantitative research scientists. Human information processing is not always bound by rules of logic or mathematics. There is also the more general issue of the contextual validity of many psychological experimental studies into information processing and social cognition. Traditionally scientific methods such as calibrated statistical tests do not realistically interpret the nature of everyday human behaviour. Our cognitive structures may be programmed to manage information naturally in the environmental context. In this case, experimental data showing bias or distortion might be due to low environmental validity of the design of the experiment. Risk awareness also highlights another complexity in the ways that bias and subjectivity in human information processing are seen. There is evidence to suggest that the information processing framework for social cognition has limitations. These limitations cannot however be separated from the influence on the selection and processing of information about intention and interpretation. Cognitive psychology and experimental social psychology promote models of the individual thinking in a mechanistic manner, or operating like an objective scientist (if there is such a thing) seeking truths in a logical and unbiased way. The evidence suggests that this may be incorrect Experimental psychological methodologies are geared towards the provision of binary ‘correct’ answers and, by implication therefore also ‘incorrect’ answers. But in human existence, this perception of correctness may not be the primary objective and indeed it may be fallacious to hypothesise that it even exists. Experimental research may operationalise tasks that are low in contextual validity and may therefore lead to apparent ineffectiveness in information processing. Human beings have their own methods by which they conceptualise risk and these have their own contextual validity in cultural terms and the individual and social purposes that they serve. The scientific paradigm with its avowed rationality may not be appropriate or relevant within social and individual contexts and the environment in which they operate. Experimental approaches may make a contribution in informing our understanding of social cognition, but they do not necessarily tell the whole story.

Reference List

Billig, M. (1987) Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Fiske and Taylor (1991) Social Cognition (2nd edition), New York, McGraw Hill

Heider, F. (1958) The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, New York, Wiley

Joffe, H. (1999) ‘Risk and the ‘Other’, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

McArthur, L.A. (1972) ‘The how and what of why: some determinants and consequences of causal attribution’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 2, pp. 171-193

Ruscher, J.B., Fiske, S.T., and Shnake, S.B. (2000) ‘The motivated tactician’s juggling act: compatible vs. incompatible impression goals’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 39, pp. 241-256

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