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Social Psychology

Social Cognition

Social cognition refers to how people select, interpret, and apply information about people and social situations.
Human beings are capable of logical thinking, but their thinking is also influenced by emotions, social pressures, and environmental cues. People rarely have the time or resources to collect and evaluate all possible information about a situation. The field of social cognition explores how people take in social information and explain their own behavior and the behavior of others. Substantial research demonstrates that people take shortcuts when they gather information, make decisions, and try to understand the causes of social events. Although these thinking shortcuts save time, they do not always lead to logical outcomes. As a result of these shortcuts, people may overlook the complexity of other people's lives and blame disadvantaged people for problems beyond their control. They may hold others to higher standards than they hold themselves, without being aware of their hypocrisy. Thinking shortcuts can also leave people vulnerable to manipulative persuasion tactics. Fortunately, research suggests that people who are aware of manipulative sales and persuasion tactics are less likely to succumb to them.

Attributions and Attitudes

In the fundamental attribution error, people tend to overestimate the impact of personal traits and underestimate the role of situational factors.

An attribution is a causal explanation for events or behaviors. Attribution theory states that people attempt to understand others' behavior by assigning feelings, beliefs, and intentions to the person or situation. Dispositional attributions frame a person's inherent disposition—or stable, enduring traits—as the cause. Situational attributions consider a situation or external factors as the cause. For example, if a student does poorly on a paper and the professor believes the student is simply lazy or stupid, the professor is making a dispositional attribution. If the professor believes the student's low grade could be due to being homesick or overworked, the professor is making a situational attribution. In the fundamental attribution error, people tend to overestimate the role of dispositional factors in other people's behavior and to underestimate the role of situational factors. If a cashier speaks curtly to a customer at the grocery store, the customer may assume the cashier is simply rude. But the cashier may have a sick child at home and be worried about them. In that case, the cashier's terseness is likely due to stress rather than a bad attitude.

An attitude is a stable way of thinking about a person, idea, or object that is based on personal evaluation and beliefs. People have attitudes about many things, including products, politics, and other people. Attitudes tend to be positive or negative and are often reflected in a person's behavior. Like behavior, attitudes can be changed by situational or external pressures and by internal influences. Attitudes have three major components:

  • an affective component, which includes feelings about something
  • a behavioral component, which is the effect of one's attitude on behavior
  • a cognitive component, which includes beliefs and knowledge about something

Sometimes, people do not hold explicit attitudes about something due to lack of experience. Self-perception theory suggests that individuals form attitudes by evaluating their behavior and determining the attitudes behind it. Attitudes are not always consistent. In 1957 psychologist Leon Festinger defined cognitive dissonance as the psychological discomfort arising from having two or more differing attitudes, behaviors, or cognitions. Cognitions include thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. Attitudinal inconsistencies are uncomfortable because people feel as though they are not being true to themselves, which causes dissonance. For example, a person who is an animal rights activist but enjoys eating meat may feel guilty about their behavior.

People experiencing cognitive dissonance are motivated to decrease their discomfort. In the case of the animal rights activist, the most logical way to eliminate dissonance would be to become a vegan. However, they may find the diet to be overly restrictive. The meat eater may instead choose to alter their attitudes by accepting their choice ("I enjoy eating meat, so I'm going to eat it"), rationalizing it ("I'm not hurting the animal myself"), or changing their prior beliefs ("I used to think eating meat was wrong, but now it doesn't bother me"). Related to cognitive dissonance is impression management theory, which argues that people will lie about their attitudes to appear as though their actions are consistent with their beliefs. The meat eater in the preceding example may claim to be a vegan or vegetarian to support their animal rights advocacy.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance occurs when an individual's behaviors do not match their attitudes and beliefs. People can resolve the discomfort this mismatch creates by changing either their attitudes or their behaviors.


In the central route to persuasion, people evaluate messages carefully and focus on informational content. In the peripheral route, people make snap judgments based on surface aspects, such as attractiveness.

Persuasion is the process of changing an attitude toward something through communication from an external source. While persuasion can be used in everyday life to attain desired outcomes, it is often employed in marketing, advertising, and sales. There are two distinct routes used to persuade others: the central route and the peripheral route.

The central route to persuasion is a direct route to attitude or behavior change that uses logic, data, and facts to convince people to make a certain choice. The central route to persuasion works best when the target of persuasion is likely to focus on the information presented and evaluate it carefully. For example, an individual who has just learned that they have serious health problems might be persuaded to change their diet through detailed information about dietary choices linked to lower rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The central route focuses on the quality of the information to persuade people to change their attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors. The argument presented must be strong and factual to result in a lasting change.

The peripheral route to persuasion is an indirect route to attitude or behavior change that uses a large number of superficial arguments. It is an effective approach when the target of persuasion is not likely to put deep thought into decision-making. Celebrity endorsements and infomercials listing a string of mostly meaningless aspects of a product are examples of the peripheral route to persuasion. A consumer may quickly form positive associations about a message or product when it is promoted by a famous person, regardless of the actual product quality. However, attitude and behavior changes tied to these persuasion tactics are rarely long-lasting.

Optimal Route to Persuasion

Central Route Peripheral Route
Approach Provide detailed factual information, focus on key issues Speak quickly, offer many superficial arguments, provide celebrity endorsements
Audience Invested in outcome, highly motivated, analytical, paying attention Making low-stakes decision, giving limited attention to decision, moved by emotions rather than logic
Processing Deep, focused on quality of arguments Limited, focused on appeal of presenter
Effect Lasting influence, decision resistant to counterattacks Temporary influence, decision open to future change

The central and peripheral routes to persuasion involve different strategies to influence individuals' decision-making process.

Persuasion Techniques

Effective sales and persuasion techniques use social psychology principles to influence people's choices.

Researchers have tested many persuasion strategies when selling products in an effort to change people's attitudes, ideas, and behaviors. The foot-in-the-door technique is a technique in which the persuader gets a person to agree to a small action and then follows up with a request for a larger action. In 1966 a study by social psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser showcased this technique. Participants in the study who had agreed to sign a petition or post a small sign in their yard were more likely to agree to put a large sign in their yard than people simply asked to install the large sign. This technique works because people feel pressured to show consistent behavior.

The opposite strategy is the door-in-the-face technique, in which the persuader makes an excessive demand and then follows it up with a comparatively reasonable request. In 1975 marketing and psychology professor Robert Cialdini and colleagues tested this technique. Participants were initially asked to volunteer for two hours per week at a juvenile detention center for at least two years. When they refused, they were asked to volunteer to chaperone a two-hour field trip; 50% agreed to do so. Interestingly, only 17% of participants who were exclusively presented with the second scenario agreed to be chaperones. This technique works because people feel bad about denying requests. Agreeing to the second request feels like a reasonable compromise.

Another persuasion technique that is common in sales is the low-ball technique, in which a person is persuaded to agree to an attractive offer (e.g., a low price on a car lease) and then feels obligated to honor the agreement even when the terms change (e.g., additional lease expenses not mentioned initially). Although persuasive techniques can seem pervasive, it is possible to resist them. Being aware of persuasive tactics can reduce one's susceptibility to them. The inoculation effect occurs when people decrease their susceptibility to persuasion through exposure to positions that challenge their beliefs. By considering opposing stances, people strengthen their own through counterarguments.