Memory and How It Allows Us to Make Sense of People

Under the scope of social cognition, I will first explain the processes involved in how and when information stored in memory is brought to bear on making sense of other people. Next, I will show how these processes are relevant to the social-cognitive model of transference proposed by Andersen et al.. Finally, I will show how emotions and motives can result from the social-cognitive processes by which we make sense of others.

Different psychologists have described the process by which the information stored in one’s memory is utilized during the analyzation of others in the same manner. Higgins and King claim that individuals maintain psychological constructs, or coherent information about entities from specific experiences with similar entities. How we go about analyzing others is dependent on how we identify and categorize a certain stimulus, or person, as some instance of a certain construct. The identification and categorization of an individual into a certain category involves the recognition of a similarity between the properties of that person and the content of some construct. (Higgins and King) According to Cantor, individuals identify others with a category of individuals if the individual’s properties match that of the prototype of the group. Cantor also maintains that the process of making sense of others is an interactional process, an individual, or observer, ‘sizes-up’ and ‘types’ others in the context of his/her preconceptions and expectations of the individual and the external situation itself. (Cantor)

Mischel further elaborates on the aspect of interaction in the analyzation of others in his introduction of the cognitive-affective personality system. First, Mischel explains that their exists a basic set of person variables that describe individual differences in personality and attempt show the differences between people in the unique ways they interpret aspects of themselves and their social worlds. One of the person variables, encoding, is relevant to how we view others in that it deals with how one construes and interprets events, experiences and people. According to Mischel, different individuals will encode the same person in different ways and will attend to and seek out different kinds of information from that person. The reason for these differences, Mischel explains, can be attributed to the fact that when one experiences certain features of an experience or person, a characteristic pattern of cognitions and affects become activated that are specific to each individual that will come to color one’s encoding of the person. The way one encodes and construes another person, is therefore dependent on the individual’s behaviors, expectations, affects, values and current situation, also called reciprocal interactionism. This causal and interactive chain influences how the information one has stored in his/her memories comes to bear with other factors, such as our expectations, affects, and the external situation, to make sense of others. (Mischel, Personality, 283)

There is also the question of when one is more apt to utilize the information stored in one’s memory to analyze others. Higgins and King explain construct accessibility as the readiness and ease with which stored constructs are used to process and analyze information about events, experiences and people. Individuals are more likely in some cases to use constructs to define and encode and consequently shape the way they view others when that construct is more accessible. One factor that increases the accessibility of a construct is the expectation that the construct will occur. Another factor that increases construct accessibility are motivations. For example, in order to abstain from missing out from an experience, object, or person that is comforting or satisfying, it is to one’s advantage to be prepared and ready for that construct, and maintain that construct highly accessible. Other factors that increase construct accessibility are salience, the recency of construct activation, and the frequency of construct activation. (Higgins and King)

The social-cognitive processes used to analyze other people can be related to the social-cognitive model of transference. Andersen et al. proposes that in the process of analyzing and making sense out of new persons transference will occur if the representation of a significant other is activated by the new person. (Andersen, Lecture) The social-cognitive idea of reciprocal interactionism, the idea that an individual’s prior ideas, expectancies and emotions one experiences while interacting with people, objects or situations will effect their present encoding of them, is relevant to Andersen et al.’s theory of transference. (Personality, Mischel, 295) The idea of reciprocal interactionism is related to that of transference in that in the process of transference the previous encounter that one has with a significant other effects the way one encodes individuals one meets later on. Thus, both ideas hinge on the idea that past experiences with people color the way we view individuals in the present.

Emotions and motives can both result from the processes of social-cognition by which we make sense of the individuals around us. In the theory of transference discussed by Anderson, individuals attach the feelings and emotions that they hold of their significant others, like attraction or repulsion, to those new persons they meet that have activated the representations of their significant others in their minds. (Andersen, Lecture) Another way that emotion can be produced through social-cognitive processes is through that of Fiske’s theory of Schema Triggered Affect. Fiske agrees with the previous psychologists discussed concerning the way we come to make sense of those around us, which is that he believes that one’s prior experiences with people effects the way one encodes others. Fiske’s Schema Triggered Affect stated that if a given stimulus or person fits a certain category, the stimulus or person will receive the affect linked to that category. Therefore, if one feels hate when they think of the category of purple people, and one then meets an individual that exhibits the characteristics of purple, one will put the individual in the purple people category and also feel the emotion of hate. Fiske conducted a study in which he hypothesized that individuals develop unique mate schematas for the type of individuals that they are attracted to. When one meets an individual that triggers the schema, maintaining the mate characteristics that follow the necessary schema, the individual becomes attracted to that person. The schema cues affects, expectations and behaviors that are based on previous encounters with the mates in their past that they were attracted to. Consequently, the schema triggers affects within the individual toward the other of lust and attraction all because of their prior experiences with others. (Fiske)

Some psychologists, however, such as Zajonk, claim that affect and emotion cannot be mediated by cognition because one’s emotional response to an individual occurs much quicker than one’s cognitive interpretational response to them. Therefore, one’s affective response to an individual, for example hate, comes before one categorizes or types an individual into a certain construct. (Andersen)

One’s motives also effect the social-cognitive process by which we try to make sense of the people around us. As I discussed earlier, one will find certain constructs more accessible if that construct is in alignment with one’s motives. While in the process of pursuing a certain goal, one actively seeks out constructs that correspond to one’s goals, and therefore the accessibility of that construct is increased. Therefore, one’s motivation to fulfill a goal will color how he/she views others, in that the constructs applicable to one’s goal that are present in the person one is trying to make sense of, will be the first things one will recognize.(Higgins and King)

When meeting others, many processes are brought to bear to decide how we view them in our minds. Not only does prior information stored in our memories effect the way we see others, but the motives and emotions we maintain effect the way we see others as well. Our situation, behaviors, emotions, expectations, motives and cognitions all interact to create the unique way we each see the world and the people in it.

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