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Social Cognition

Developmental Changes In Social-cognitive Reasoning, ConclusionReasoning within Different Social Domains

The study of social cognition focuses on how people think about and make sense of themselves, others, and the world of social affairs. This cognitive approach highlights the active role that people play in organizing, interpreting, and "constructing" the social world within which they live and interact. Conceptual structures or schemas—internalized knowledge or information—are assumed to play a central role. These structures, derived from previous experiences, are the basis for mental representations (re-presenting objects and events not physically present), and they serve as a frame of reference for interpreting, storing, processing, and using information and experiences. The development of well-differentiated and integrated cognitive structures enables people to select, process, and use social information in a relatively efficient, automatic fashion. Nevertheless, as a comprehensive research review by Richard E. Nisbett and Lee Ross demonstrated, automatic processing increases the likelihood that novel social information may be distorted and biased in a manner consistent with a person's existing conceptual structures. For instance, social stereotyping involves automatically categorizing an individual in terms of a conceptual structure that represents a particular group of people.

Social reasoning is influenced by the particular social activity, institution, interpersonal problem, or group being thought about. Research, however, has demonstrated developmental consistencies in social-cognition across various social topics and domains. Representative examples of three lines of research follow: perceptions of others, moral reasoning, and thinking about political issues.

Perceptions of Others

How people conceptualize and understand others is a primary consideration in social reasoning. William Livesley and Dennis Bromley asked children of different ages to describe familiar people. The youngest children offered behavioristic, egocentric accounts, highlighting physical features (e.g., tall, wears glasses) and stereotypical qualities (e.g., nice, mean). Older children were more likely to go beyond external, surface features and use more inner psychological qualities (i.e., traits, abilities, interests). By adolescence, attempts to explain rather than simply describe other people were offered. Adolescents went beyond categorical assertions and attempted to justify and qualify their claims about others. People were seen not only as possessing unique blends of traits but also as being contradictory (e.g., happy people can have dark moods).

Moral Reasoning

According to Lawrence Kohlberg, reasoning about moral situations and dilemmas also proceeds along the developmental progression described above. Children of different ages were given a series of moral dilemmas designed to determine how they construed, understood, and attempted to resolve moral conflicts. (For instance, after exhausting all legal possibilities, should the husband of a dying wife steal an excessively expensive drug that would cure her?) The youngest children focused on external factors such as the presence or absence of punishment and made judgments on an egocentric, self-centered basis: How will he benefit or suffer in the here and now? ("He should steal it, it's his wife; he needs her.") Older children began to internalize and represent moral rules, values, and standards. These children, however, conformed to the conventions in a rigid, inflexible, absolutist manner: It is a question of duty or obedience to the rules of the social order. ("He has to obey the law!") Kohlberg found that some adolescents, by no means all, displayed a post-conventional approach to moral reasoning and attempted to go beyond the concrete rules and laws and deal with more abstract principles and rights. These adolescents acknowledged the relativist nature of any given law yet emphasized the need for contractual agreements to protect the rights of individuals.

Political Reasoning

A similar progression in reasoning about political institutions has been identified. Joseph Adelson and Robert O'Neil asked participants to imagine that a large group of disgruntled people decided to move to a deserted island to establish a new government. They were then questioned about the pros and cons of various social rules, authority structures, and political processes. Young children thought about political processes in concrete, egocentric, absolutist terms. They focused on specific, present-oriented activities and self-serving issues. For example, they were willing to grant authorities unrestricted, unilateral power to ensure nothing went wrong. Adolescents were more likely to shift away from a concrete, authoritarian stance; some expressed concern about the rights of individuals as well as the collective welfare. They were more idealistic and they reasoned in a relativistic manner, attempting to envision possibilities and scenarios that might occur in the future. For instance, they considered the need to limit governmental powers because of the possibility that some leaders might become capricious or corrupt.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 7