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'Discuss top-down and bottom-up processing in relation to social cognitive processes, with reference to empirical studies'.

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Introduction

'Discuss top-down and bottom-up processing in relation to social cognitive processes, with reference to empirical studies'. Social cognition is concerned with the mental representations and processes involved in social judgements and social behaviour. Bottom-up and top-down processing will be discussed in relation to the social cognitive processes; perception, encoding and storage, reference will be made to the role of schemas, heuristics and the effect of priming. Top-down explanations of processing rely on previous experiences and expectations, and highlight the importance of the context. In contrast, bottom-up explanations suggest social judgements and behaviours are directly influenced by sensory imput (Hogg & Vaughn, 1998). The basic foundations of top-down and bottom-up processing have been adopted by many theorists and have been empirically demonstrated in the areas of; logical reasoning, person perception, person memory, judgement tendencies and linguistic communication. Research into the two processing modes has concentrated on three major components; how people process in quick and effortless fashion (top-down processing), how they process when willing and able to engage in extensive thought (bottom-up processing), and finally, what conditions encourage each type of processing. Cognitive processes are staged. Observed stimulus events must be perceived, then encoded and stored. The encoding and interpretation of the perception is heavily influenced by prior knowledge stored in memory (Fielder & Bless, 2001). Newly encoded perceptions are stored in memory, potentially affecting the assessment of future events (Augoustinos & Walker, 1995). The combination of newly encoded input along with old knowledge in memory provides the basis for further processing, resulting in inferences and judgements (Srull, 1983). Cosmides (1989, cited in Fiedler & Bless, 2001) approach to logical reasoning illustrates the importance of the social component in human thinking/intelligence.

Middle

In many studies (Srull & Wyer, 1979, cited in Bargh, 1996; Hansen & Hansen, 1988, cited in Lord, 1997) of construct accessibility and priming, subsequent thoughts are found to be closely assimilated with previously activated thoughts. Srull and Wyer (1979, cited in Bargh, 1996) showed that when primed with hostile words in a word comprehension test, participants viewed 'Donalds' behaviour to be more hostile (than assertive) compared with participants primed with neutral words. Stack, Schwarz, Bless, Kubler & Wanke (1993, cited in Hogg & Vaughn, 1998) found that when people are made aware of the prime, they over-adjust away from their initial reaction, displaying contrast rather than assimilation. When circumstances prime an extreme version of a trait construct, the result is a rebound or contrast effect. Herr (1986) demonstrated this by repeating Srull & Wyer's (1979, cited in Bargh, 1996) study. This time participants were primed with the names; Hitler and Charles Manson. These participants then judged 'Donalds' behaviour as assertive rather than hostile. This could be because by comparison to the anchor point (Hitler, Charles Manson) 'Donalds' behaviour was rather benign. Pryor and Ostrom (1981, cited in Hogg & Vaughn, 1998) showed that person perception information can be stored in a number of ways. People can be clustered under attributes or groups or by their individual traits, behaviours or appearances. Social memory can therefore be organised by person or by group. Sedikides and Ostrom (1988, cited in Hogg & Vaughn, 1998) suggest the preferred mode of organisation is by person, which produces more accurate, easily recalled memories. Organisation by person is more likely to occur when it concerns real people, whom we expect to interact with at a later time (Srull, 1983).

Conclusion

A danger of top-down processing is illusory correlation. An overestimation of the relationship between two distinct variables can strengthen a stereotype, making it highly resistant to change. Fielder, Hemmeter and Hoffman (1984, cited in Fiedler & Bless, 2001) demonstrated an illusory correlation in an experiment where students were erroneously reported to have proposed more liberal educational attitudes than conservative clerks. Fiedler & Bless (2001) suggest Fielder et als (1984) results along with similar findings (Hamilton and Rose, 1980 cited in Fiedler & Bless, 2001) show the biased frequency judgements were correlated with a corresponding recall bias. They also discuss that the results show the participants perception and comprehension of the attitude statements. Participants have relied on past experience and expectations to draw conclusions, overlooking the actual stimuli, relying heavily on top-down processing. Mental capacity, motivation and exposure are all factors which have been empirically tested and shown to influence which processing strategy will be implemented (either bottom-up or top-down). Even when thoughtful Bottom-up processing is engaged, the effects of prior knowledge are still very prominent and there effect cannot be ignored. In our everyday lives, our experiences coupled with recently learnt information is nearly always expected to benefit us in the future, it can therefore be argued that our social experiences have taught us to relay heavily on top-down processing. The central finding of the empirical studies discussed here has been that social behaviour can be triggered by features of the environment. Behavioural responses can occur in the absence of any conscious involvement or intervention and the danger of this is increased stereotyping which can result in prejudices. The realisation that cognition is very much embedded within a social system rather than merely the individual brain places social psychology at the very core of cognitive sciences. C624 1

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