Social cognition can be defined in a number of ways, and each way of defining it seems pretty reasonable. For example, Wikipedia states that it concerns how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations. I’ve also heard definitions that focus on methods, suggesting that it is the study of social psychological topics using approaches more common to fields like cognitive psychology. Broadly, one might say social cognition is fundamentally about studying the ways that human cognitive processes serve the goal of allowing human animals to understand one another and ourselves, in order to decode the mysterious complexities of our (often strange) behaviors.
One definition I particularly like came from Susan Fiske, who said something like (paraphrased): “Social cognition is about understanding how people think about other people and themselves.” Why do I like this? It is easy to understand, and surely true. And this is the definition that comes closest to what we study in the MASC (Morality and Social Cognition) Laboratory.
Our lab tries to answer questions like: What makes some people better (or worse) than others at decoding others’ thoughts and emotions? How do people attempt to understand others’ minds and how does trying to get inside another person’s head influence feelings about that person and the self? How do intuitions or information about others’ mental states affect judgments of them and their actions, such as a sense of them as “good” or “bad,” or drive a desire to see them blamed or praised, punished or rewarded?
Put another way, our primary interests are in how people think about and form judgments regarding a) people’s actions and the outcomes these actions cause (or appear to cause, fail to cause), b) the contents of others’ minds (a.k.a. people thinking about people thinking about people, actions, and consequences), c) the role that mind perception plays in influencing actions and outcomes and that actions and outcomes play in how people perceive minds.
Note: most often in our case, “people” means “other people than the self,” but we’re also interested in how people think about themselves (and others closely connected to the self).
Related to the above, we’re also interested in the role of people’s emotions for informing or driving judgments about a-c, and in how social information about the people being evaluated – such as their race, ideology, or past behavior – influences each of the above. Finally, the “M” in MASC refers to our particular interest in actions/outcomes/mental states that might be classified as prosocial/beneficial/good or antisocial/harmful/bad. However, we don’t discriminate: ordinary, neutral behavior is interesting as well.
Our interests are broad. Perhaps most importantly, our research focuses on person perception and social decision-making (what influences our views of others and drives our decisions about them). However, we’re also interested in topics like perspective taking (attempting to get inside others’ heads), empathy (feeling what one believes the other feels or feeling “for” others), and empathic accuracy (correspondence between inferences about minds and what is actually happening in those minds). If it’s about people thinking about people, we’re interested.
Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to contact me (Sean) (seanmlaurent [at] gmail.com or slauren [at] illinois.edu) if you would like more information about current projects.