Critically Evaluate Three Theoretical Perspectives in Social Psychology

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Ashleigh Fahy        Social 1 Oct 2008

Critically Evaluate Three Theoretical Perspectives in Social Psychology

Social psychology uses several theories in order to help explain and understand how we perceive people and social events, how we influence others, and the nature of our social relationships. It is important when dealing with these theoretical perspectives to assess their strengths and weaknesses when applying them to specific social situations such as media influences or interpersonal attraction .

        Cognitive theories in social psychology emphasise that an individual’s behaviour depends on the way they perceive the social situation. According to Kurt Lewin (as cited in Taylor S.E., Peplau L.A., Sears D.O. (2006). Social Psychology), “behaviour is affected by the individual’s personal characteristics and by the social environment as he or she perceives it.” One of the main ideas in the cognitive approach is that people tend to group objects spontaneously according to simple principles such as proximity, similarity and past experiences. For example, a pile of clothes that need to be ironed are viewed by someone as a large heap rather than as individual items of clothing.

        Another aspect of the cognitive perspective is that people tend to perceive that some objects are very noticeable and other things blend into the background. Objects that are colourful, noisy and moving stand out to individuals whereas quiet, stationary and bland objects are harder to notice and constitute the background. This principle, along with spontaneously grouping objects, is important in determining people’s perception of physical objects and social situations. Research from Fiske and Taylor (1991) on social cognitions focuses on how individuals put together information about people, social situations and groups to make inferences about them.

        An example of how social psychologists use cognitive theories in real life situations is the use of cognitive priming to explain media influences on anti social behaviour. The basic idea of cognitive priming is that the aggressive cues presented in violent television programmes lead to aggressive thoughts and feelings. Evidence for the importance of cognitive priming comes from Josephson (1987). Some Canadian boys were shown a television programme containing violence, in which snipers communicated with each other by walkie-talkies. The other boys watched a nonviolent programme. After this, all of the boys played hockey and it was found that the boys who watched the violent programme and received instructions by walkie-talkie were more aggressive during the hockey game than the boys who had received instructions by tape recording. Therefore, the walkie-talkie acted as a cognitive prime to aggression.    

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          Cognitive theories are very important and useful for studying the mental processes involved with social situations. The theories have proved to be very successful when applied in various ways, including providing advice about the validity of eyewitness testimony. However, the cognitive perspective is rather reductionist as it involves separating the cognitive system from the motivational and emotional systems, and ignores other important aspects such as social and cultural factors.  Another important limitation of the cognitive perspective in social psychology is that there are large individual differences in cognitive processes such as memory, thinking and reasoning. But most cognitive theories ...

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