Dual Modes of Social Cognitive Processing

“Social cognition involves the perception, interpretation and processing of social information that underlies social interactions and includes emotion perception, social perception, social knowledge and attributional bias” (Addington, Girard, Christensen, & Addington, 2010, p. 49).  Social scientists from the 1970s and 1980s believed social cognitive processing and corresponding behavior [output] is predominantly influenced by two competing systems: automatic processing versus controlled processing.  “Automatic behavior was unintentional, it did not need attention, it occurred outside of conscious awareness, it was uncontrollable.  Conversely, controlled behavior was intentional, effortful, and dependent on conscious guidance” (Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010, p. 233).  However, contemporary theories suggest far more complex interactions between automatic and controlled processes.

Automatic and controlled processes

Is behavior the result of automatic processing of information or controlled processing of information?  To answer the question two criteria are considered: level of conscious and goal-dependency.  First, information processing occurs at different levels of consciousness: preconscious – information never consciously processed, postconscious – information previously consciously processed, and conscious – information currently, attentively, and actively being processed (Fiske et al., 2010).  Second, goal-dependency refers to whether the information processing is intended to fulfill a goal (goal-dependent) or not (goal-independent).

Common sense indicates pre/post-conscious processing is automatic whereas controlled processing involves conscious awareness.  However, this is only part of the story.  “Controlled behavior is behavior in which the goal is to change other behavior – to alter it, to avoid it, to stop it” (Fiske et al., 2010, p. 234).  Therefore, at some level goal-dependency also becomes relevant.

A 2 x 2 taxonomy for categorizing social psychological processes is posited as follows (Fiske et al., 2010):

2 X 2 Taxonomy

Pre/post-conscious, goal-independent Pre/post-conscious, goal-dependent
Conscious goal-independent Conscious, goal-dependent

To wit, behavior that falls within the upper left quadrant (pre/post-conscious, goal-independent) would be categorized as fully automatic, whereas behavior falling within the bottom right quadrant (conscious, goal-dependent) would be classified as controlled behavior.  However, behaviors within the other quadrants indicate a more complex, interdependency between automatic and controlled processes and outcomes [behavior].  For instance, my goal is to get to work on time.  I control my behavior to leave for work on time, get into the car, and go to work.  However, during the drive my mind occupies itself consciously with other thoughts, while pre/post-consciously attending to the act of driving (upper right quadrant).

Differences.  The amount of information processed and responded to differs significantly between automatic and controlled processing, which is one of the adaptive benefits of automatic processing.  Individuals have only so much finite consciousness to process information.  As a result, a great deal of information is processed automatically (good or bad) to allow us the opportunity to attend to those circumstances deemed consciously important.  Simply put, there is not enough brain capacity to make all of the decisions necessary for daily functioning through consciously controlled processing alone.      A second difference relates to flexibility.  Automatic processes are not flexible, easily adaptable, or modifiable.  They are learned behaviors, attitudes, or scripts.  Over time, they can be changed, but not instantly.  On the other hand, controlled processes adapt to changing scenarios, goals, or situations because by definition a control process is changing, modifying, or stopping behavior.  Controlled processing can also result in automatic processing after significant repetition, such as the example of driving on autopilot.  Another more innocuous example is learning to type.  At first it took a great deal of effort and control to learn where the keys were on the keyboard, but after time and with repetition, typing becomes automatic and can occur while consciously attending to the words being typed rather than finding the letters to type them.

Which and When.  Specific circumstances can derail either process.  For instance, cognitive overload limits, time pressures, or even uncertainty can result in automatic processing over controlled processing, especially in goal-independent tasks.  However, on goal-dependent tasks, controlled processing can inhibit (suppress) even post-conscious automatic processing (Fiske et al., 2010).  For example, if a person considers themselves egalitarian and is presented with the opportunity to review candidates for a potential job, they are likely to evidence control over automatic processing.

Racial Stereotypes and Juries

            Automatic processing is linked to stereotype activation even in the non-prejudiced.  The problem is that category activation can lead to the activation of stereotypes, and these stereotypes are often erroneous and negative…The conclusion [of this work] was bleak: We preconsciously activate cultural stereotypes, and this is true for all of us, even for people who are not explicitly prejudiced” (Fiske et al., 2010, p. 243).  Further, suppression or inhibition (control) can backfire resulting in a boomerang effect once the control behavior is relaxed.

Summary.  The article selected for analysis relates to racial stereotypes, which may have developed preconsciously through mere exposure.  More specifically, the purpose of this study was to investigate race-crime attribution bias, congruency effects, decision-making, and information gathering strategies of jurors in a race-crime congruent/incongruent mock trial.  Therefore, the intent of the study was to determine how much of the jurors’ deliberations were based on automatic versus controlled informational processing.

Process.  The study consisted of a 3 x 2 x 3 between-participants factorial design.  Three crimes (embezzlement, grand theft auto, and vehicular manslaughter), two ethnicities (Caucasian and African American), and three standards of doubt (strict, lax, and undefined).

The researchers hypothesizes that race-crime congruency would result in guiltier verdicts and harsher punishments, as well as greater confidence in same.  Additionally, it was predicted that race-crime congruency would result in greater internal versus external attributions as opposed to race-crime incongruency.  It was also hypothesized that race-crime congruency would result in confirmatory hypothesis-testing strategies and limited informational search versus incongruency resulting in diagnostic evidence strategy and increased informational search by jurors.

Results.  The results from this study significantly supported the hypotheses.  In the race-congruent conditions, Caucasian defendants were more likely to be found guilty and given harsher punishments than African American defendants, and African American defendants were more likely to be found guilty of grand theft auto and given harsher punishments than Caucasian defendants.  Vehicular manslaughter is not typically associated with either race and the results did not reveal any significance for either race.  Additionally, in the race-congruent conditions, the jurors requested far less information, and reported greater confidence in their verdicts as opposed to the race-incongruent conditions.  Also as predicted, in the race-congruent condition internal attributions of defendant’s behavior were reported versus the race-incongruent condition wherein external attributions were reported.  Lastly, in the race-congruent conditions the jurors evidenced a hypothesis confirmation strategy of decision making versus the race-incongruent condition wherein the jurors utilized a diagnostic strategy for verdict determination.


The results of this study would seem far more dire than indicated by Fiske et al. (2010) because the jurors in this mock jury trial were given opportunities to deliberate utilizing controlled informational processing.  In fact, the intent of the deliberation process is specifically to take time and consider all of the facts and evidence of a legal case prior to rendering a verdict.  However, according to these results, the jury was far more likely to find the defendant guilty based on attributional biases.  Moreover, the jurors’ informational processing was further diminished by said biases so that they sought only confirmatory information in race-crime congruent cases, virtually eliminating the possibility of a fair and equitable trial.  In the case of the African American defendant, this study also seems to indicate that despite efforts to the contrary, the legal system is still far from color-blind.


Addington, J., Girard, T. A., Christensen, B. K., & Addington, D. (2010).  Social cognition mediates illness-related and cognitive influences on social function in patients with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders.  Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 35(1), 49-54.  doi:10.1503/jpn.080039

Fiske, S. T., Gilbert, D. T., & Lindzey, G. (Eds.).  (2010). The handbook of social psychology (Vol. 1, 5th ed.).  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Jones, C. S., & Kaplan, M. F. (2003).  The effects of racially stereotypical crimes on juror decision-making and information-processing strategies.  Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 25(1), 1-13.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/S15324834BASP2501_1

Moskowitz, G. B. (2005). Social cognition: Understanding self and others. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Wegner, D. M., & Bargh, J. A. (1998). Control and automaticity in social life. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed., pp. 446-496). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


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