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Social cognition is an aspect of social psychology concerned with exploring the way in which people interact with each other and their environment. Specifically, social psychology focuses on the way in which information is encoded and stored by the brain so that it can be retrieved later. A number of cognitive processes are used in the process of storing social information, and in linking pieces of related information so that they can be retrieved when they may be valuable.
When people are interacting with each other, they are constantly in the process of storing new information while recalling existing information which may be helpful to the interaction. For example, upon meeting someone new, a person's brain will use basic information supplied, such as the age, race, and gender of the new acquaintance, to create associations which may smooth the social interaction. This information is recalled and used on an unconscious level.
People also store social information which they believe may be valuable. This can include memories of social experiences, information about specific people, and information about social groups. This information is used in future social interactions, and in later processing of social experiences. A number of cognitive processes come into play with social cognition, including the formation of stereotypes and other shortcuts for information processing.
Some students of social cognition theory are especially interested in the role of social cognition in early childhood development. The culture a child is raised in clearly has a strong impact on how that child develops, as illustrated in a number of studies. Researchers study how children process social information, and how social maturity evolves with age. Researchers may also be interested in people who lack social skills or who interact with people in ways which are unique, unfamiliar, or unusual.
It is important to be aware that much of social cognition takes place on a subconscious level. Many of the terms used in social psychology have a meaning outside this field; “stereotype,” for example, is often viewed as a negative concept, when in social psychology, it is a tool to help people process social information. Everyone forms stereotypes on a subconscious level; it is the conscious use and reflection of stereotypes which can become a matter for concern. Classifying people is a shortcut used by the brain to group similar information, but people do not necessarily need to act on the classifications provided by the brain.