Social Cognitions

The culture that we live in has a significant impact on the way we think about and perceive our social worlds, so it is not surprising that people in different cultures would think about people and things somewhat differently. Social cognitions are the way we think about others, pay attention to social information, and use the information in our lives (consciously or unconsciously). In this section we will review several types of social cognitions including schemas, attributions, confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error. We will also revisit analytic perception and holistic perception that we learned earlier in this chapter.


Through the process of cognitive development, we accumulate a lot of knowledge and this knowledge is stored in the form of schemas, which are knowledge representations that include information about a person, group, or situation. Because they represent our past experience, and because past experience is useful for prediction, our schemas influence our expectations about future events and people.

When a schema is activated it brings to mind other related information. This process is usually unconscious, or happens outside of our awareness. Through schema activation, judgments are formed based on internal assumptions (bias) in addition to information actually available in the environment. When a schema is more accessible it can be activated more quickly and used in a particular situation. For example, if there is one female in a group of seven males, female gender schemas may be more accessible and influence the group’s thinking and behavior toward the female group member. Watching a scary movie late at night might increase the accessibility of frightening schemas, increasing the likelihood that a person will perceive shadows and background noises as potential threats.


A White male is surrounded by a group of eight African men wearing brightly colored blankets. They are standing in a desert.
A Caucasian man in a group of African tribesmen may activate schema related to tourists. You would not immediately consider him a local of the area. [Group of Man on Desert Image by Follow Alice CC 0]

Once they have developed, schemas influence our subsequent learning, such that the new people and situations we encounter are interpreted and understood in terms of our existing knowledge (Piaget & Inhelder, 1962; Taylor & Crocker, 1981). When existing schemas change on the basis of new information, we call the process accommodation. In other cases, however, we engage in assimilation, a process in which our existing knowledge influences new conflicting information to better fit with our existing knowledge, thus reducing the likelihood of schema change. You may remember these concepts from Chapter 4 when we learned about Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

Psychologists have become increasingly interested in the influence of culture on social cognition and schemas. Although people of all cultures use schemas to understand the world, the content of our schemas has been found to differ for individuals based on their cultural upbringing. For example, one study interviewed a Scottish settler and a Bantu herdsman from Swaziland and compared their schemas about cattle. Because cattle are essential to the lifestyle of the Bantu people, the Bantu herdsman’s schemas for cattle were far more extensive than the schemas of the Scottish settler. The Bantu herdsmen were able to distinguish his cattle from dozens of others, while the Scottish settler was not.


Ankole cattle are standing on a dirt road next to green field and hill.
Bantu herdsmen’s schema for cattle were more extensive when compared to Scottish settlers, culture shapes our schema and cognitions. [Ankole Cattle Image by sarahemcc CC BY 2.0]

One outcome of assimilation that shapes our schema is confirmation bias, the tendency for people to seek out and favor information that confirms their expectations and beliefs, which in turn can further help to explain the often, self-fulfilling nature of our schemas. The confirmation bias has been shown to occur in many contexts and groups, although there is some evidence of cultural differences in its extent and prevalence. Kastenmuller and colleagues (2010), for instance, found that the bias was stronger among people with individualist (e.g., the United States, Canada, and Australia) versus collectivist (e.g., Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, India among others) cultural backgrounds. The researchers argued that this partly stemmed from collectivist cultures putting greater importance in being self-critical, which is less compatible with seeking out confirming as opposed to disconfirming evidence.


Psychologists who study social cognition believe that behavior is the product of the situation (e.g., role, culture, other people around) and the person (e.g., temperament, personality, health, motivation). Attributions are beliefs that a person develops to explain human behaviors, characteristics and situations. This means that we try to explain or make conclusions about the causes of our own behavior and others’ behavior. Internal attributions are dispositional (e.g., traits, abilities, feelings), and external attributions are situational (e.g., things in the environment). Our attributions are frequently biased. One way that our attributions may be biased is that we are often too quick to attribute the behavior of other people to something personal about them rather than to something about their situation. This is a classic example of the general human tendency of underestimating how important the social situation really is in determining behavior. Fundamental attribution error (FAE) is the tendency to overestimate the degree to which the characteristics of an individual are the cause of an event, and to underestimate the involvement of situational factors. FAE is considered to be universal but that cultural differences may explain how and when FAE occurs.

Attributions and Culture

On average, people from individualistic cultures tend to focus their internal attributions more on the individual person, whereas, people from collectivistic cultures tend to focus more on the situation (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000; Lewis, Goto, & Kong, 2008; Maddux & Yuki, 2006). Miller (1984) asked children and adults in both India (a collectivistic culture) and the United States (an individualist culture) to indicate the causes of negative actions by other people. Although the younger children (ages 8 and 11) did not differ, the older children (age 15) and the adults did. Americans made more dispositional attributions, whereas Indians made more situational attributions for the same behavior.

Morris and his colleagues (Hong, Morris, Chiu, & Benet-Martínez, 2000) investigated the role of culture on person perception in a different way, by focusing on people who are bicultural (i.e., who have knowledge about two different cultures). In their research, they used high school students living in Hong Kong. Although traditional Chinese values are emphasized in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong was a British-administrated territory for more than a century, the students there are also enculturated with Western social beliefs and values.

Morris and his colleagues first randomly assigned the students to one of three priming conditions. Participants in the American culture priming condition saw pictures of American icons (such as the U.S. Capitol building and the American flag) and then wrote 10 sentences about American culture. Participants in the Chinese culture priming condition saw eight Chinese icons (such as a Chinese dragon and the Great Wall of China) and then wrote 10 sentences about Chinese culture. Finally, participants in the control condition saw pictures of natural landscapes and wrote 10 sentences about the landscapes.

Then participants in all conditions read a story about an overweight boy who was advised by a physician not to eat food with high sugar content. One day, he and his friends went to a buffet dinner where a delicious-looking cake was offered. Despite its high sugar content, he ate it. After reading the story, the participants were asked to indicate the extent to which the boy’s weight problem was caused by his personality (personal attribution) or by the situation (situational attribution). The students who had been primed with symbols about American culture gave relatively less weight to situational (rather than personal) factors in comparison with students who had been primed with symbols of Chinese culture.

In still another test of cultural differences in person perception, Kim and Markus (1999) analyzed the statements made by athletes and by the news media regarding the winners of medals in the 2000 and 2002 Olympic Games. They found that athletes in China described themselves more in terms of the situation (they talked about the importance of their coaches, their managers, and the spectators in helping them to do well), whereas American athletes (can you guess?) focused on themselves, emphasizing their own strength, determination, and focus.

Most people tend to use the same basic perception processes, but given the cultural differences in group interconnectedness (individualistic versus collectivist), as well as differences in attending (analytic versus holistic), it should come as no surprise that people who live in collectivistic cultures tend to show the fundamental attribution error less often than those from individualistic cultures, particularly when the situational causes of behavior are made salient (Choi, Nisbett, & Norenzayan, 1999). Bias attributions can lead to negative stereotyping and discrimination but being more aware of these cross-cultural differences in attribution may reduce cultural misunderstandings and misinterpreting behavior.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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