Contribution of Experimental Methods to Social Cognition

Option A

In this report I will analysis the depth in which the contribution of experimental methods have informed us too understand about social cognition, Social cognition is the study of how people process social information, its encoding, storage, retrieval, and processing, in relation to social situations. It is an aspect of social psychology concerned with how we perceive ourselves and judge people around us in the social world.

In doing this I will weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of the experimental approaches towards social cognition.

Comparing and contrasting experimental approaches within Social Cognition

When people are interacting with each other, they are continuously in the process of storing new information but also retrieving existing information, which can be helpful toward the interaction. For example, upon meeting a new person, their brain will use basic information supplied, such as age and gender to create associations which may ease the interaction, research into social cognition looks too explore this area.

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An Early contributor to the field was Fritz Heider (1958) (Mapping Psychology (2nd ed), p60). He studied behaviour of people in the terms of cause and effect. Heiderbelieved that people generally tended to give more attribution than they should topersonality, and, conversely, less than they should to situations. In other words, personality is not as consistent an indicator of behaviour as people tend to believe.

To get a better understanding of the information exchanged and interaction taking place, psychologists conduct research with the help of experimental approaches. They attempt to capture the complexity of perception, cognition and attribution with in a laboratory environment. The concern of experimental approaches is discovering the processes underlying behaviour and cognition. To achieve this, whilst preserving control over the experiment, researchers try to develop various approaches in order to make the experiments within a laboratory environment more reliable.

One such approach is the Vignettes experiment. “A vignette is a short description of a person, event, or behaviour, used in experimental setting, which permits control over the amount and nature of information provided to participants “.(Cited in Mapping psychology (2nd ed), p74)

An example of a study using vignettes is McArthur’s (1972) work which was a study testing Harold Kelley (1967) Covariation model of attribution. Harold Kelley developed the Covariation model in which people make causal inferences to explain why people behave in a certain way, using three criteria’s:

Consistency: How the event varies in relation to both the individual and the situation.

Distinctiveness: How unique the behaviour is to the particular situation.

Consensus: How most people respond to a certain stimulus

If the variables were varied the cause can then be determined if they are internal or external.

In MacArthur’s study she used vignettes containing brief descriptions of 16 different behavioural events to study the results of causal attributions made by participants. McArthur wanted to test the effect of the different types and level of information on the nature of casual attributions made by participants, so each vignette was accompanied by written questions eliciting these attributes.

The Vignettes method is convenient and easy to use, and makes it possible to gather data from large numbers of participants, which, in turn, makes it more likely that the sample represents the population from which it is drawn. It also gives more control and allows researchers to study situations which are not possible to view outside of the laboratory. One disadvantage of this method though is that reading a Vignette in a laboratory is clearly different to observing the behaviour or event in everyday life.

Social Schemas

Schematic processing is an effective and efficient way of making sense of social experiences; however it is also a limiting method of processing information based on social schemas.

Social schema is a mental structure we use to organise and simplify our knowledge of the world around us. Schemas contain knowledge that is generalised; it is built upon structured cluster of pre-conceived ideas. Experimental approaches can be used to examine schematic processing.

An example of this categorising could be used towards someone with a skinhead, if they were seen walking down the street they maybe perceived too be thuggish. We don’t actually know anything about them, however the schema within our mind contains ‘top-down’ information about the stigma connected with skinheads, this is combined with the information stream coming in from our senses to make this assumption. Schematic processing carrying has its advantages and disadvantage:


  • Simplifying the situation, filtering, reducing information and saving on time
  • Can Helps predict outcomes


  • Darley and Gross (1983) experiment concluded that our own biases may distort our perception of people. We see what we expect and not what is actually there. Mapping Psychology (2nd ed), p66).
  • Create and live by stereotypes. Our over generalisation is an consequence of the theory of schemas.

Fiske and Taylor (1991), (Mapping Psychology (2nd ed), p70) study described people as “motivated tacticians”, who are able to pick and choose their cognitive approaches to best fulfil their needs. They formed the opinion of this issue as being a negative outlook. It can be derived that although schematic processing is generally automatic and operates below conscious levels, which can be manipulated by motivational conditions and intentions.

Schematic processing can be defined as being an automatic processes happening with not having any conscious control. However, individuals do not always abide by the first impression feedback output by schemas every time, some can go beyond, especially when motivated to do so, leading people to automatically make choices in the predicament of uncertainty.

Rauscher et al. (1993) (Mapping Psychology (2nd ed), p68) carried out a study to investigate this further and concluded that motivational relevance (how useful someone was to other person) played a part in how they were perceived by that person. This evidence questions Fiske and Taylor (1991) theory.

Attribution Theories

The Attribution theory is concerned with how we attribute internal and external factors influence people’s behaviour and dictating how they behave. Social Psychologists are interested in clarifying the processes associated in assigning reasons to people’s behaviour. This is done by asking questions associated to information with processing and decision making.

Certain behaviours may be explained through two categories of causes:

Internal/dispositional: Within the person

External/situational: Events happening without control.

Attribution theories are largely associated with receiving and interpreting information, a problem is that the information is regularly provided in the occurrence of specific motives. If the attribution theory were a credible social psychological theory, it should integrate genuine human impulses within its paradigm, the problem is however it does not always work like this.

Joffe (1999) (Mapping Psychology (2nd ed), p93) conducted a interview based analysing how vulnerable people from two diverse cultures (British and South African) were to catching the HIV virus.

His conclusion displayed that people generally tended to pair the virus with the culture, to which they are not familiar with. This affirms the hypothesis of attribution theory and the biases for which the information processing method can be distinguished, although her rendition takes a different route. Her findings also display evidence for the attribution theory being parallel too fundamental attribution error.

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The Schema theory and availability heretic (predicting the frequency of a event too occur) can also be applied here, as people’s view and opinions may have originated from being influenced by previous media coverage they have watch in their cultural environment.

Jones and Davis (1965) (Mapping Psychology (2nd ed), p72) understood that we generally presume other peoples behaviours to have dispositional reasons and informs us more about the person. It may also be disputed that attribution theories are overly dependant on the rationality of human thinking.

An additional matter to conceive with relation to the attribution theory is the presumption that people are concerned to find cause for their behaviour in the same approach as a Psychological researcher.


Experimental approaches have both strength and weakness with in Social Psychology. The strength of the contribution of experimental social psychology towards the understanding of social cognition is weighed upon to their approach and whether the results match the hypothesis, the validity of these results are the measure on how much the data develops the expanding knowledge within the field.

Billing, M (1987) (Mapping Psychology (2nd ed), p71) argued that the notion that social thinking (thinking about people and their experiences) has an argumentative rather than a consensual structure.

When experimental psychology is used in the relation to social cognition, it comprises of two concepts of human psychological cognitive process, these are; cognitive psychology (internal mental processes of thought), and social psychology (relationships between people and groups). This can result in presumptions about logical approaches of perceiving the social world in a prescriptive matter.

However the uses of experimental approaches do tackle certain questions when dealing with social cognition. For example, studies into naturalistic thinking about risk discovers a complicated way of thinking about risky behaviour, however this would not match the predictions of quantitative research psychologists.

There are also the more broad issue of the level of contextual validity of many psychological experimental approaches into the processing of information and social cognition. Traditionally scientific approaches like calibrated statistical tests do not realistically construe the nature of daily human behaviour. Our cognitive state could be designed to negotiate information naturally in the social context, were this to be the case, experimental data showing bias or false information could be down to the low environmental lawfulness the design of the experiment entailed. Experimental studies may simplify processes which are low in contextual validity and could therefore lead to inefficiency in information processing.

The theories of the experimental approaches need to be judge on their appropriateness, since practical research and theoretical perspectives are inherently connected they may strengthen our understanding of how we perceive and interpret the social world. However, non-experimental research may also complement and co-operate with experimental methods in informing our understanding of social cognition.

So in conclusion, experimental approaches do contribute to informing our understanding of social cognition; however they do not necessarily capture the complete process.


  • Harold Kelley (1967), Covariation model //
  • McArthur, L.A. (1972). The how and what of why: Some determinants and consequences of causal attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22: 171-193
  • Billig, M. (1987) Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology, Cambridge University Press.
  • Fiske, S.T., & Taylor, S.E. (1991).Social cognition(2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Miell. D, Phoenix. A and Thomas. K, OU, Mapping (2007) DSE212 Mapping Psychology (2nd ed), book 1, Chapter 6-9, p59 – 100
  • Bartlett, F (1932 Remembering: A study in Experimental Social Psychology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press



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