Classical Approaches Linking Social Thinking and Interpersonal Behavior

The close relationship between mental processes and interpersonal behaviors has long been recognized by writers and philosophers (Forgas, 1981). Indeed, much social philosophy from Plato to Kant consists of speculations about the interdependence of mental life and social life, the way internal “human nature” determines social relationships and social structures. Several classical social science theorists (discussed next) have also studied this issue, emphasizing the close interdependence between symbolic mental processes and direct interpersonal behaviors.

We would like to argue in this book that the currently dominant social cognitive research paradigm ought not to be confined to the study of cognitive processes and behaviors that take place solely within the individual person. Rather, we should aim to understand individual behavior in the context of superordinate social and ecological structures that transcend the individual as the sole unit of analysis. Groups, organizations, and cultures call for their own theories that are distinct from intraindividual theories (Cooper; Jost & Kay; Kashima, this volume) and situations and social episodes impose constraints on individual behavior (Forgas, 1982). Interpersonal behavior is thus always a genuinely socially and culturally embedded process, relying on common ground shared by different people.

A glance at the historical origins of social psychology reveals that many pioneers were well aware of the discipline’s social and interpersonal scope. A number of then very prominent theoretical concepts (see discussion herein) testify to deliberate attempts to realize the ambitious original research agenda to create a genuinely social, supraindividual social psychology. However, regrettably, and rather interestingly from a historical perspective, the interpersonal approaches to social cognition that were so promising at the outset had a conspicuously small impact on the rapid growth of empirical research over the last several decades. Let us first consider some of those fascinating early conceptions, before we turn to the almost purely intrapersonal theories that have come to dominate current research and discuss reasons for the neglect of interpersonal social cognition.

Symbolic Interactionism Perhaps the first comprehensive theory of interpersonal behavior developed by George Herbert Mead, symbolic interactionism offers one important example of such an integrative framework for the study of social interactive processes. Symbolic interactionists assumed that to understand people’s behavior toward objects in their environment we have to analyze the meanings that people associate with those objects through social interaction and interpretation. Rooted in American pragmatism, this perspective informed the work of both Mead (1934) and his student Herbert Blumer. For Mead, social cognition and social behavior were not distinct, separate domains of inquiry, but were intrinsically related. Mead explicitly sought to reconcile the behaviorist and the phenomenological, mentalistic approaches to human behavior. He argued that interpersonal behavior occurs as a result of the symbolic mental representations and expectations formed by social actors based on their experience of past interpersonal episodes. Thus, cognitive representations of how to behave in any given situation are partly “given,” determined by prior experiences and symbolic representations of past social encounters.

However, behavior is not fully determined; to some extent, social actors are free to deviate and to construct their encounters in unique, creative, and individualistic ways. According to Mead, it is the uniquely human ability for symbolic representations that allows the abstraction and internalization of social experiences, and it is such mental models that are the key to understanding social systems in general and interpersonal behavior in particular. Several of chapters in this volume describe research that is strongly reminiscent of Mead’s emphasis on symbolic representations in explaining behavior (Cooper; Jost & Kay; Kashima; Malle et al.; Sedikides & Skowronski, this volume).

It is perhaps unfortunate that symbolic interactionism did not become an important theory within social psychology, probably due to the lack of suitable methodologies for studying individual symbolic representations at the time. The currently dominant social cognitive paradigm has changed much of this, as it essentially deals with the same kinds of questions that were also of interest to Mead: How do the mental and symbolic representations that people form of themselves and their interpersonal encounters come to influence their behaviors (Eich et al.; Fiedler; Forgas; Sedikides & Skowronski, this volume)? Recent social cognitive research has produced a range of ingenious techniques and empirical procedures that for the first time allow a rigorous empirical analysis of the links between mental representations and strategic behaviors (Bless & Forgas, 2000; Wegner & Gilbert, 2000). Several chapters included here provide excellent illustrations of how the merging of cognitive and behavioral approaches can provide important new insights into the intricate relation between social thinking and interpersonal behavior (Dijksterhuis; Forgas; Semin & Garrido; Macrae et al.; Winkielman & Kavanagh, this volume).

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