Social cognition refers to the processing of information about other people through the use of schemas — information processing that often occurs automatically. In general, when we study social cognition, we are interested in understanding how people select, interpret, remember, and use social information to make judgements and decisions about others. In this section, we will look at one aspect of social cognition called person perception.
Person Perception in the Milgram Study
In Milgram’s obedience study, most participants were paired with an Experimenter who “was a somewhat dry, hard, technical-looking man” in his early thirties, and with a Learner who “was soft, avuncular [like an uncle], and innocuous [harmless]” (Milgram, 1974, p. 58). The Experimenter, because of his physical appearance and behaviors, was someone that most people would be likely to obey in such a situation, whereas the Learner, because of his physical appearance and behaviors, was someone that most people probably would not wish to hurt. Could it be that the Teachers were responding more to the appearance of these two men than to their social roles? If these two men had switched roles, would the Teachers have had an easier time resisting the commands of the “soft, avuncular, and innocuous” Experimenter, or perhaps an easier time shocking the “dry, hard, technical-looking” Learner?
Milgram performed an experimental manipulation to examine this question. He used a new Experimenter who looked “rather soft and unaggressive” and a new Learner who had “a hard bony face and prognothic jaw [a jaw that juts out from the face], who looked as if he could do well in a scrap” (pp. 58-59). In this experimental manipulation, obedience decreased to only 50%, whereas it had been 65% with the original Experimenter and Learner in the Standard Condition. Although Milgram dismissed this result by stating that “the change in personnel had little effect on the level of obedience” (p. 59), this change is comparable to some of the other manipulations in which he concluded that there was an effect. A change in obedience of 15% seems very large, especially when we recall that there was very little change in obedience when laboratories were moved, when women were used as Teachers instead of men, and when the Teacher was allowed to hear the Learner screaming instead of just hearing a single pounding on the wall at 300 volts. Thus, it would seem that changing the physical appearance of the Experimenter and Learner led to a decrease in obedience.
Why did this change occur? It seems likely that the Teachers felt differently towards the new Experimenter and the new Learner because of the changes in their physical appearance relative to the original Experimenter and the original Learner. As discussed below, a person’s physical appearance leads others to attribute particular personality characteristics to that individual. Thus, it seems likely that the stern appearance of the original Experimenter made the Teachers more hesitant to defy his orders, and the softer and less threatening appearance of the new Experimenter made them less hesitant to do so. It also seems probable that the kindly appearance of the original Learner and the meaner appearance of the new Learner caused the Teachers to respond differently to them, too. The effect on Teachers’ obedience of Milgram’s manipulation of the physical appearance of his confederates is consistent with much research on person perception.
What is Person Perception?
Person perception refers to the process of inferring that an individual has particular internal qualities, such as a particular emotional state and set of personality characteristics. Person perception has often been studied in situations in which people are meeting each other for the first time (that is, when developing “first impressions”). People often rely on easily observable and, hence, superficial features in such situations, such as the other person’s:
- physical appearance,
- facial expressions,
- bodily movements,
- verbal statements (what he says and how he says it),
- what we have heard about them from others.
In addition, when forming first impressions, we often rely on what the other person says and how he or she says it, as well as what we have heard about the person from others.
Person perception generally involves automatic processes because the superficial features just mentioned tend to activate schemas, which typically results in the unconscious processing of the information contained in these features. For example, let’s say that you are introduced to someone named, Alfred Hitler. Do you think that the name might influence your initial feelings towards that person? If not, why do you think that you have never met someone named Hitler? Perhaps this is because anyone with that name quickly changed it either during or soon after World War II, (For an interesting description of how people reacted to a man who grew a toothbrush moustache, the type of moustache worn by Adolf Hitler, see Cohen, 2007.)
A social stereotype is an oversimplified and rigidly held set of beliefs about members of a social group. Social stereotypes are especially important for person perception. For example, gender stereotypes and racial/ethnic stereotypes have major influences on what we infer about others.
Pittinsky, Shih, and Trahan (2005) performed a fascinating study of the influence of gender and racial/ethic stereotypes on person perception. The participants consisted of undergraduate students attending Harvard University. They were instructed to use e-mail to ask another student, Amy Chen, a list of questions. Deception was used in that Amy Chen did not exist: she was, in reality, the experimenter, who, after giving instructions to the participants, went to a different room and corresponded with the participants by e-mail. The first message from the confederate stated that her name was Amy Chen. The independent variable consisted of variations of Amy Chen’s e-mail address. The first address, firstname.lastname@example.org, made salient the confederate’s Asian-American identity. The second address, email@example.com, made salient the confederate’s female identity. The third address, firstname.lastname@example.org, made salient neither the confederate’s racial/ethnic identity nor the confederate’s gender identity, thereby serving as the control condition. It is important to remember that all participants were told that her name was Amy Chen. What the researchers wanted to determine was whether or not the e-mail address would activate social stereotypes that affected their conscious cognitions (their memories; see next paragraph).
During the e-mail discussion, the confederate disclosed her SAT subtest scores for quantitative reasoning (730) and verbal reasoning (720). According to the common racial/ethnic stereotype in the United States, especially among people in higher education, Asian Americans are believed to be superior at quantitative reasoning and inferior at verbal reasoning. In addition, according to the common gender stereotype in the United States, females are superior at verbal reasoning and inferior at quantititative reasoning.
Thus, the hypotheses tested were:
- The group for which the Asian-American identity was made salient (by using the e-mail address, email@example.com) would remember the confederate as having a higher quantitative-reasoning score and a lower verbal-reasoning score compared to the memories of those in the other two groups.
- The group for which the female identity was made salient (by using the e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org) would remember the confederate as having a higher verbal-reasoning score and a lower quantitative-reasoning score compared to the memories of those in the other two groups.
The research results are presented in Table 1.
|Identity MadeMost Salient||Recall of SAT Subtest Scores|
Table 1. Results of the social-stereotype/person-perception study by Pittinsky, Shih, and Trahan (2005)
As you can see, participants receiving e-mails from the address that made salient the confederate’s Asian-American identity later remembered:
- her quantitative-reasoning score as being higher than did participants from the other two groups;
- her verbal-reasoning score as being lower than did participants from the other two groups.
Participants receiving e-mails from the address that made salient the confederate’s female identity later remembered:
- her quantitative-reasoning score as being lower than did participants from the other two groups;
- her verbal-reasoning score as being higher than did participants from the other two groups.
Participants receiving e-mails from the address that made neither her racial/ethnic nor gender identity salient remembered her scores as being in between those remembered by participants in the other two groups. Thus, even something apparently as trivial as an individual’s e-mail address can activate social stereotypes that affect how others perceive the individual — in this case, what they infer about the individual’s intellectual abilities. Furthermore, the research participants were completely unaware of the fact that the confederate’s e-mail address influenced their memories of her SAT subtest scores. This shows that, when social stereotypes are activated, they cause us to automatically process information about an individual, which then unconsciously determines our conscious cognitions, emotions, and behaviors (see Figure 1).
Study Questions for Section 6-12
- How would you define “social cognition” in your own words?
- What is an example from earlier today of a situation in which you were engaged in social cognition?
- How did Milgram study the effects of person perception on obedience? What did he find?
- How would you define “person perception” in your own words?
- Do you think that controlled processes can be used in person perception? (Please explain your answer.)
- What is an example from earlier today of a situation in which you were engaged in person perception?
- What kinds of information are used in person perception when we meet someone new?
- What kinds of information do you think we use in person perception when we see a member of our immediate family?
Cohen, R. (2007, November). Becoming Adolf. Vanity Fair. Retrieved November 25, 2011, from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/11/cohen200711
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row Publishing.
Pittinsky, T. L., Shih, M., & Trahan, A. (2005). Identity cues: Evidence from and for intra-individual perspectives on stereotyping. Faculty Research Working Papers Series, John F. Kennedy School of Government. Boston: Harvard University. Retrieved November 25, 2011, from http://web.hks.harvard.edu/publications/getFile.aspx?Id=159