People can function in the surrounding world because they possess social cognition, which is the ability to perceive the information from the external stimuli, interpret them, reconsider them, and somehow react to these stimuli. Human beings can react to a stimulus in two ways: by using automatic thinking ability or the controlled one. These ways of thinking are two kinds of social cognition that are typical only of humans. In most cases, automatic and controlled modes of thinking work together properly. However, in some situations, one kind of social cognition might prevail over the other one; for example, in everyday life people are more likely to use automatic thinking to observe the environment, make some habitual conclusions, and behave according to the information perceived from the environment. The controlled thinking, conversely, is necessary when a situation is not common and a person should make well-thought decisions or perform essential actions which might have great influence on his/her life. Hence, it is obvious that despite the fact that these kinds of cognition serve the same aim, the mechanisms of their functioning are drastically different. The objective of this paper is to juxtapose these cognitive processes by finding similar and contrasting features of both to better understand the way the process of social cognition works.
Automatic Thinking Analysis
Automatic thinking is one of the kinds of social cognition that has a number of specific features. This way of thinking can be defined as a thought that appears in people’s minds unintentionally, unconsciously, without much cognitive efforts, and it triggers the automatic analysis of the environment that is based on people’s background knowledge and experience. The basic gist of automatic thinking is that it aids people to comprehend new situations by referring to the previous experience a person has acquired in a similar situation (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). This becomes possible due to the existence of certain schemas. Schema is a generic term used to identify the basic knowledge and impressions of the social world around, which allows people to perform some actions and make some decisions on this basis. This knowledge might comprise different things and notions like the information about other people and oneself, social roles, and some specific events which happen to people (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). Thus, schemas help humans organize their knowledge and apply it in the appropriate situations. However, it should be mentioned that sometimes schemas can have a rather negative influence in a particular situation. Despite the fact that schemas are quite effective tools of predicting somebody’s behavior or certain actions based on the prior experience. This notwithstanding, when it comes to race, gender, or fraternity, schemas can become stereotypes. In relation to social psychology, a stereotype is defined as an oversimplified generalization about a class or a group of people often with a negative connotation (Goldstein, 2011). The major problem connected with stereotypes is that people can apply them immediately and automatically when one meets the other person that is somehow different from him/her. The main threat is that people are inclined to categorize other people without relevant evidence, just relying on the former situation and experience they acquired when communicating with a person of other gender, race, nation, or social group. This leads to false assumptions, conflicts, and various misunderstandings. Thus, race, gender, and belonging to different social groups among others enhance quick thinking and influence fast but often false decision-making process.
In spite of the negative aspects of schemas, it is hardly possible to imagine the life without them. Naturally, schemas can lead to some erroneous interpretation, but they perform several crucial for the human well-being functions. Schemas are extremely useful since they help organize the information, and, thus, understand the surrounding world, and fill in the gaps, when a person lacks some knowledge. If people did not possess schemas, everything would be unknown, confusing, and inexplicable for them. The real value of schemas can be easily understood by those people who suffer from Korsakov’s syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by the inability to form new memories, which means that a person should approach any situation as for the first time despite the fact that he/she has already had it several times (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). Furthermore, the key symptoms are the severe loss of actual memories and the invented memories which were created by the brain to fill in the gaps in memories. The people who suffer from this memory disorder cannot live in a real world, since they do not perceive and understand it. Instead, they create their own imaginary world and live in their illusions (Alzheimer’s Association, 2017). This indicates that the ability to relate a new experience with the already acquired schemas is a crucial factor for people’s well-being and active social interactions.
Concerning various schemas, a major issue that might arise is how people can apply them. To determine it, one should explain the notion of accessibility and priming. Accessibility can be defined as a certain extent to which schemas are grouped in the forefront of people’s minds and their likeliness to be used in particular situations while making judgements and decisions about them. Thus, some schemas can be more accessible due to bright past experience, the relation to current aims of a person, or because of some recent experiences (Aronson, Wilson, Akert, 2010). The last reason defines the notion of priming. In simple terms, priming is the process which contributes to the increase in the accessibility of some schemas due to some recent experiences (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). Priming is a perfect example of automatic thinking, since it always occurs fast, unconsciously, and without any intention.
However, it is wrong to believe that people’s schemas cannot be changed, and particularly, because they are something that is accepted without much consideration. People are able to revise their schemas by gaining new bright memories or by rethinking past experiences. Indeed, people tend to act according to their schemas till they are consequently supported or contradicted. Here it is necessary to mention the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy that can be determined as a case in which people have expectations towards other people’s behavior or actions and they start to act towards this person in accordance with these expectations. This, in its turn, prompts this person to react consistently with those expectations, thus, making them become reality.
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It might seem to be magical that people are able to think without being aware of the fact that they are thinking now. However, it is the automatic thinking that really occurs in human mind and influences human constant decisions which people make without even identifying them.
Controlled Social Cognition
The opposite type of social cognition is called control thinking that can be defined as a process that occurs fully consciously, intentionally, voluntarily, and with much effort. The basic difference from the automatic thinking is that a person is generally aware of the thinking process. He/she is able to control that to make the process fulfill the aim of the thinking process (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). Thus, people can easily activate or deactivate this thinking process and have the total control over it.
One of the features of controlled social cognition is counterfactual thinking ability. Counterfactual thinking is the process of changing some events that occurred in the past, mentally trying to imagine how the events might have been changed. As a rule, people resort to counterfactual thinking when they had a negative experience that they would be glad to change. Sometimes, this way of thinking can become rumination, which is the process of focusing only on bad things that happen or happened to them in their life. Therefore, it is crucial not to let oneself return to the past and criticize oneself for the things that might have been done in other way, since there is no chance to change them (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). Rumination is a principal contributor to depression; that is why in some cases it can be fairly dangerous.
To eliminate rumination, one can use thought suppression. This process is connected with the attempts to avoid thinking about something unpleasant that a person did. Thought suppression is based on two processes which are interconnected and the connection between them influences how successful thought suppression is. The first one is a monitoring process the function of which is to search for any unpleasant memory or evidence that might penetrate into consciousness. The nature of the process is automatic. The second one is an operating process that can be defined as a controlled and very effortful attempt to distract oneself from the unpleasant thought by thinking about something else (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). The interrelation of both leads to the perfect functioning of thought suppression. The focal point of thought suppression is ironic processing. This processing involves deliberate and conscious attempts not to think about some topics which are either unpleasant or painful (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010). However, there is a drawback in this controlled mental process. Under the cognitive load, people who tend to iron their thoughts can lose their temper and these thoughts can flow incessantly.
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In summary, one should admit that the automatic and controlled thinking differ much; however, they overlap with each other fairly tightly, thus, ensuring the proper functioning of human social cognition. They both aim to identify and help react to the environmental stimuli, but perform this function in contrasting ways. If the automatic thinking enables people to adjust to typical life situations and offers already made schemas according to which they can function normally in a society, the basic purpose of controlled thinking is to monitor automatic thinking, draw conclusions, and improve the process of human thinking in general.