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Role of Heuristics in Social Cognition

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2771 words Published: 16th Apr 2018

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  • Tracy L. Rawlins


Discuss the topic of social cognition and in particular the role of heuristics in the way we process information. Briefly describe two different heuristics and give examples of how and when they might be used as well as problems connected with their use.

Our capabilities of interpreting, analyzing, remembering, and using information about the social world is referred to as our social cognition. It is believed that our thinking of the social world is quick and effortless; in other words, automatic (Baron & Branscombe, 2012). It is our own way of encoding information, storing it in our memory, being able to retrieve it from our memory, as well as processing any information in our brains. Social cognition focuses on the manner in which individuals apply any information about social situations.

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As humans, we are only able to handle a particular amount of information at any point in time. When we are faced with information that goes beyond this point that we are able handle, we enter a state of information overload. In these situations, we are presented with alternate ways of stretching our cognitive processes, especially in times where the logically right answers are not easily known or would take an immense amount of effort to figure out. These alternate ways are called heuristics.

Heuristics allow us to quickly deal with amounts of information that go beyond our own social cognition capacity. These processes contribute to the reason why a majority of our social thought is occurring on an automatic basis. More or less, heuristics are considered a mental shortcut that one may employ to allow them to solve issues and make their own judgments in a quick and efficient manner. They work by drastically cutting down thinking time and allow one to proceed in their situations without having to think about their next actions. Heuristics are used when we often need an expeditious solution to a problem. While they may be useful in some decision making cases, they may also be erroneous. Thus, it is safe to say that the fact something worked in the past, does not guarantee that it will indeed work again in the future. Seeking the same heuristic outcomes as previous experience makes it all the more difficult for an individual to come up with alternate ideas or solutions to their problems.

One of the most common heuristics of the three that I see on a daily basis would be the availability heuristic. This shortcut relies mostly on examples that we have experienced or have previously been aware of. When we retain information from past experiences, it is highly convenient for one to relate any future similar experiences. When trying to yield a decision, we might immediately think of past events and we may very well judge those events more possible and more frequent than others. I believe individuals ten to declare things that they remember more important than the things that they do not. An example of when it would be helpful would be when referring to your relationships. Your relationship suddenly begins to grow because your significant other comes to mind more easily, even after leaving their side; this leads you to assume that this person must be of importance to you and worth your devotion. However, every heuristic possesses the chances of having errors in processing. As an example where this heuristic causes errors, we see multiple news reports about kidnappings, we might declare that kidnappings are more common in our area than they are in reality, leading us one believing that these events are more typical than they really are. In another example, the lottery has been seeing more winners closer to where you live. You start buying more lottery tickets than you should because you think your chances of winning are increased due to the frequency of jackpot winners close to where you live.

On the other hand, I also see the representativeness heuristic on a daily basis as well. Every day, people are categorized into certain stereotypes, whether it is by their looks, their lifestyle, or simply how they act. Robert and Nyla, authors of Social Psychology, explain “You would base your judgment on the basis of a relatively simple rule: The more an individual seems to resemble or match a given group, the more likely she or he is to belong to that group” (Baron, & Branscombe,2012, p. 38). This heuristic is our own estimation of the likelihood of an event by just comparing it to an existing prototype or category in which already exist within our minds. By prototype or category, I mean the things we think as the most typical or relevant object or event. While this heuristic can sometimes be handy, we may be more likely to overestimate the likelihood of something occurring, or more likely to make more errors within our judgments. One thing to remember is something is not more likely to occur just because it fits the category. In an example of which this heuristic might come in handy is when you go for your job interview. You see that the boss’s body language is welcoming and they offer warmth while communicating with you. He’s wearing a polo shirt, and khaki shorts. You feel more comfortable to disclose some personal experiences and share some laughs with them. You offer him to join you in a golfing tournament, assuming he likes to play golf by evaluating his attire. You two hit it off immediately and you are hired on the spot. However, the outcomes are not always correct. To explain how representativeness can cause errors, this example portrays an insight to the possibility of being wrong. You’re walking in New York City and see a group of African Americans wearing baggy clothes sitting on a stoop and immediately think you’re in danger because your perception of these particular individuals is that they are crime committing thugs based on their appearance. You couldn’t be farther from the truth; these men were actually undercover detectives scoping out the area for the actual crime committers, keeping the streets crime free. Since you related their appearance and race to a certain stereotype, you used the representativeness heuristic, and this caused your conclusion to be erroneous. Lastly, an example I am passionate about; pit bulls. A majority of society declares all pit bulls are dangerous and deadly because they know of them attacking people. They base their decisions on how pit bulls are portrayed to society, yet they do not take into account that the pit bulls who attack are almost always abused, fought, used as bate, or was put through traumatic events. Most pit bulls do not attack, do not bite, and are full of love and warmth, but since our society associates pit bulls with being attacked, they are deemed detrimental by many.

Discuss schemas: their effects, how they are activated, the perseverance effect, and their tendency to become self-fulfilling.

Schemas are frameworks which assist us in organizing social information and guide us during the processing of information (Baron & Branscombe, 2012). The best example that I can use is describing concert goers. If you’re a concert goer, the chances are that you’ve been to one or more concert in the past. You know the entire process from being through it before. When arriving at the venue, you have to find parking. From there you must join the line to enter the arena, go through the security check, present your ticket, and find your seat. Every time you go, it is the same process. This means you have become familiar with the process and have since built up a mental framework, otherwise known as a schema. Schemas influence social thought processes including attention, encoding, and retrieval. “Attention refers to what information we notice. Encoding refers to the processes through which information we notice gets stored in memory. Finally, retrieval refers to the processes through which we recover information from memory in order to use it in some manner – for example, in making judgments about other people” (Baron, & Branscombe, 2012, p. 44). Schemas assist us in processing information efficiently, which is why they are likely to be utilized when we receive a lot of information at one point in time, particularly regarding the attention aspect. Though, when speaking of the decoding aspect, we rationalize the situations which capture our attention, becoming the main focus, are more likely to become stored information within our long term memory. Contrarily, when we receive information that goes against our expectations in situations may also be stored in an entirely different sector of our memory. When something goes against what we expect, it is thought to capture our attention, and force us to encode the information in our memory. Lastly, when speaking of the retrieval process, I am referring to the information that is most readily available. It doesn’t matter if the information goes along with our expectations or not – either way, inconsistent information may very well be remembered just as well as the information that is consistent.

Furthermore, activating a schema is commonly known as priming. As our recent experiences employ some schemas to be active, it certainly affects our current thought processes. A schema is able to be accessed temporarily due to something we just experienced, or something that just happened. For example, you’re in your living room watching a horror movie and you get up to get something to drink. You wanted milk and cookies but you realize you have no milk. The store is right up the road and it would be a quick trip, so you jump into your shoes and start walking with your friend to the corner store. You approach the wooded area down the street and suddenly feel frightened from the crinkling of leaves nearby. Every step you take, you are more on edge and every time you look over your shoulder, you think someone is following you. The scary movie caused you to have an increased sensitivity to a schema due to a recent experience. Thus, the process in which an experience or an exposure to stimuli brings a particular schema in the very front of our mind and starts to influence our decisions and judgments, this is priming. Although such experiences are thought to have a lasting effect, schemas can be unprimed as well by the individual expressing the schemas; the influences of the primed schemas vanish. However, if one does not express a primed schema, the effects may last for a longer period of time.

Additionally, in regards to the perseverance effect, schemas tend to keep their original framework even while new information is presented in which clearly defies the original information. The perseverance effect may take part in any position of a situation. This leads to the schema becoming self-fulfilling, whereas the schema influences our actions and responses within the social world in a manner that makes it consistent with the schema (Baron & Branscombe, 2012).

Fully explain the difference between automatic processing and controlled processing of information and provide an example of each.

In regards to automatic processing of information, it is a cognitive process in which requires very little cognitive effort, is fast, and efficient. This type of processing can be the result of completing the same training on the same task, and once learned, the automatic response is not easy to ignore or modify. The automatic processing of information does not require the attention or awareness of the initiation or operation of the process. Therefore, these processes are effortless, involuntary, and unintentional, often occurring when we are not aware that they are occurring. For example, sometimes when we lose things and can’t imagine exactly where we put them, we can turn our attention to something different, and sometimes we suddenly remember where we placed the items in question. Another example of automatic processing would be when we have a busy schedule and don’t always remember what we were supposed to do. Often, we feel like the information is right there in the back of our head, it just is not presenting itself. Our mind goes to something else that grabs our attention, and soon we remember the errand we were supposed to run.

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Controlled processes are cognitive processes in which require intentional control from the individual. The individual is aware and their effort is held by the amount of attention serving resources that are available at that given moment in time. When our attention is required to complete a given task, we are in control and aware. These processes require that we evaluate, think about situations, and base our decisions upon the information that we gather. Since controlled processes require our effort, they are thought to be slower than automatic processes. This places limitations on us having the ability to multitask, and on the speed of processing. In other words, the more tasks that we take on at the same time, the more our performance and quality of the results will suffer the consequences. An example of controlled processes would include efforts in the work place. While working, many people face the reality that they have more on their plate that they think they can handle. When this occurs, they often try to get the job done to gain approval from their superiors. The work requires the focus and the attention of the individual’s cognitive processing in order to adequately get the job done. However, when having to complete multiple tasks at once, the quality of the work will not be as great as if they were handling only one task at a time. Another example would be when a student is given a test and they are unsure of the answer, they are forced to think long and hard about what selection they are going to choose on the multiple choice exam. They try to reflect on the information that they were learning during their course, and eventually remember the answer; it just took a little while longer to get there.

Discuss the phenomena of persuasion and the cognitive processes that underlie it.

In regards to the phenomena of persuasion, it is an influence from our social world in which an individual is encouraged to adopt or allow an attitude, idea, or a course of action. We are often encouraged to adapt to an individual’s suggestions if we determine that person is of authority or a trusted friend. We are inclined to follow these guidelines because they tend to lead us to selecting the right choice in certain situations. On the other hand, we accept persuasions and influences so much without much thought, we are often found letting ourselves being taken advantage of. This happens a lot on television as there are products being sold with promises that are not delivered within the warranty return policy time frame.

Central route to persuasion or systematic processing is the first type of processing that we can employ, in which individuals pay close attention to the message and consider the relevant ideas and logic in detail (Baron & Branscombe, 2012). Individuals are more likely to seek this route when the ideas are relevant to them, or when the idea gives a sense of personal responsibility. In this route, individuals are more influenced by messages that are of higher quality. Next, the second approach would be heuristic processing, or the peripheral route to persuasion, in which requires less effort. It enables an automatic response from us to persuasive ideas. The response occurs to cues in the situation in which various mental shortcuts are employed. Individuals employ this route when there is a lack of motivation, ability, or time to entertain the deeper meaning of the message. The most modern approach is the elaboration-likelihood model of persuasion, in which can work in one of two ways which require different amounts of elaboration or cognitive effort. How important the message is to an individual, or the motivation and ability to process the message are the factors that decide which route is to be employed. The target of the message, the content of the message, and the source of the message are all components of the elements of the persuasive process (Baron & Branscombe, 2012).


Baron, R. A., & Branscombe, N. R. (2012). Social psychology (13th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.


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