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Social Psychology 101: Thinking in Social Contexts


Social psychology is the study of everyday life – the self, one’s relationships, social influence, and how people view and behave toward others. Its overarching themes center on the principles of situationism, meaning that situations have a powerful influence over behavior, subjectivism, meaning that everyone sees the world through a filtered perception, emergence, or the idea that phenomena are constructed rather than fundamental, and the fact that phenomena are multidimensional – they are the result of many factors. This 101 series examines various introductory topics in social psychology.

Social Psychology 101 is divided into the following chapters of content:

  1. Social Psychology 101: Conducting Research

  2. Social Psychology 101: Thinking in Social Contexts

  3. Social Psychology 101: Perceiving Others

  4. Social Psychology 101: The Mechanisms of Social Influence

  5. Social Psychology 101: Persuading Others

  6. Social Psychology 101: Attraction, Love, & Relationships

Social Psychology 101: Thinking in Social Contexts

Social cognition refers to the mechanisms occurring in an individual’s mind as others influence them and when they are learning about, understanding, or predicting others’ behavior. The mind can be thought of as an associative network of mental representations (Anderson, 1982). Associated mental representations known as schemas are the prior knowledge stored in one’s memory that plays a role in interpreting new information (Maghsoudi, 2012). Picture the mind as a deep fish tank: each individual fish in the tank is a mental representation, but each school of fish is a schema. Schemas are interconnected representations and associations (Stagnor, 2011). When a schema becomes activated in the mind, that activation spreads through networks, as if one stimulus reminds an individual of an array of other, connected stimuli. For example, when you think about college, you may think of the college you went to, then your college friends, then the great memories you all had, and then your courses. Schemas guide people’s thinking and behavior in social situations, and the cognitive processes that take place in social contexts depend on an individual’s present schemas. This article will explore the ways that schemas can be changed, the influence of cognitive accessibility in schema activation, and the role of heuristics in people’s judgment and decision-making in social contexts.

Figure 1: Each individual holds schemas that dictate how they perceive and interact with the world (T, 2020).

Changing Schematic Structure

Schemas are highly dynamic entities that change consistently. For example, one’s schema of a movie theater as a young child, early teen, and as an adult may look quite different from one another, as a movie theater might be associated with birthday parties as a child, romantic dates as a teen, and entertainment now. An individual may be faced with changing a schema when they encounter novel information or they come in contact with a stimulus that defies their expectations (Stagnor, 2011). When this happens, individuals can take two approaches: they can assimilate the new information, or they can accommodate it.

Assimilation refers to when individuals change their perception of the novel stimulus they have encountered, which enables their original schema to remain intact. Accommodation refers to when the novel stimulus causes one to restructure their schema, adding, breaking, or rearranging a connection. Accommodation is essentially learning, as it helps people to create new beliefs after being confronted with new information that challenges their preconceived notions (Stagnor, 2011). In a study by Leipold et al. (2014), researchers conducted a series of four experiments and found that the processes of assimilation and accommodation are “systematically dependent on physical, cognitive, and motivational states” (Leipold et al., 2014). Defining assimilation as “tenacious goal pursuit” and accommodation as “flexible goal adjustment,” the researchers found that “accommodation was triggered by an intervention activating divergent thought, and participants were more assimilative when they thought about their action resources” (Leipold et al., 2014) Essentially, this means that assimilation is more likely to occur under conditions that require body manipulation, physical movements, and imagining manipulating one’s body and under conditions in which one perceives having control (Leipold et al., 2014). Conversely, accommodation is more likely to occur under conditions that require divergent thinking, which is defined by the researchers as “thinking about uncommon functions of objects or unusual motives in everyday life” (Leipold et al., 2014). Assimilation may be more likely to occur under conditions requiring physical movements because these actions are more automatic and come more naturally to humans. Further, when one perceives that they are in control of a situation, they may have less of an inclination to branch out and think of new solutions, deciding to rather rely on the schemas one already has, since they are the one in charge. Accommodation is more likely to occur in situations that require divergent thinking because, under these conditions, individuals may not have sufficient schemas to help solve the problems they are facing. This may require them to branch out and accept new information which can help them expand and revise our schemas.

Figure 2: Priming affects everyday life in a variety of ways (Chivers, 2020).

Cognitive Accessibility & Priming

Cognitive accessibility refers to the extent to which schemas or knowledge are readily activated in one’s memory, and thus hold more potential to influence an individual’s thinking and behavior (Stagnor, 2011). Some mental representations and schemas are more accessible than others, or closer to the surface in the fish tank of the mind. For example, the last restaurant one ate at is probably highly accessible in memory, but the third person one kissed in their lifetime is much less accessible. Highly accessible representations are easily activated by stimuli in one’s environment; they are activated quickly, and they carry a strong behavioral impact (Stagnor, 2011). Sometimes, situational forces encourage individuals to rely on their most accessible mental constructs, such as when there is time pressure, situational importance, stress or anxiety, or the individual has a need for closure or intolerance for ambiguity.

Priming is a method for making some cognitive information more accessible (Stagnor, 2011). Repetitive priming enables an individual to be more perceptually ready to react to the same stimulus time and time again. For example, reading the word “ridicululous” primes a person to recognize and comprehend the same word faster later on (Molden, 2014). Priming may appear in the news, making a story more salient by emphasizing coverage of it, or in advertisements that influence how individuals interpret the product (Yi, 1991).

Figure 3: Availability heuristics affect judgments about what is likely to occur based on what is most cognitively accessible in the mind. This can lead to incorrect assumptions (Cherry, 2019).

Heuristics and Biases

Cognitive heuristics and biases help people navigate the world through judgment and decision-making (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). Heuristics are quick decision-making rules one holds that aid survival by freeing up cognitive resources that can be spent on other activities (Stagnor, 2011). Humans experience the availability heuristic, meaning they make judgments based on the accessibility of their mental representations of the information they are encountering. Depending on the most recent or salient mental representation of novel information they encounter, individuals may interpret that information as fitting with that representation, rather than thinking about this information more objectively and restructuring their existing schemas (Stagnor, 2011). For example, when asked whether one is more likely to die driving or flying, one may respond with flying due to the amount of media attention plane crashes garner or because they become anxious when a plane takes off, even though the chances of dying while driving are of course much higher than flying. Humans also experience the representative heuristic, meaning that they make quick judgments of a stimulus based on their expectations of that stimulus. For example, one may assume a quiet and solitary person is a librarian, rather than a salesman, pilot, or doctor (Dale, 2015).

Biases are systematic patterns of processing that influence attention, motivation, and perception (Stagnor, 2011). False consensus bias leads people to believe that others hold similar attitudes, values, and beliefs as they do. This is an automatic thought process and does not induce critical thinking that could lead to accommodating changes to one’s associative network (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). One may assume that their friend has a similar music taste to theirs, so when that friend plays a song one dislikes, one may assimilate this information as meaning that their friend happens to like this particular song for some sentimental reason, rather than reasoning that this song simply reflects their friend’s music taste. Another type of bias that humans experience which may lead to assimilation is confirmation bias, which is when people pay more attention to and absorb information that already confirms their beliefs (Stagnor, 2011). This limits the novel stimuli people encounter, which can limit their opportunities for accommodation and learning. Further, it allows for the new information they do encounter to be easily assimilated into their existing schemas, since people wish to confirm their own beliefs.

Figure 4: Confirmation bias leads individuals to comprehend only the novel information that aligns with their previously held beliefs (Garrett, 2012).


By understanding the factors of social cognition, one may better comprehend why people think, feel, and behave in certain ways under social circumstances. Schemas encapsulate people’s prior knowledge, but they have the potential to change through assimilation and accomodation, which is important to realize when people make negative judgements about others that lead to negative or hurtful behavior.

Bibliographical References

Dale, S. (2015). Heuristics and biases: The science of decision-making. Business Information Review, 32(2), 93–99.

Leipold, B., Bermeitinger, C., Greve, W., Meyer, B., Arnold, M., & Pielniok, M. (2014, July 10). Short-term induction of assimilation and accommodation. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64(12).

Maghsoudi, N. (2012). The impact of schema activation on reading comprehension of cultural texts among Iranian EFL learners. Canadian Social Science, 8(5), Article 5.

Molden, D. C. (2014). Understanding priming effects in social psychology. Guilford Publications. Stangor, C. (2011). Research methods for the behavioral sciences (4th ed). Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131. Yi, Y. (1991). The influence of contextual priming on advertising effects (Vol. 18). ACR North American Advances.

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Madison Goode

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