‘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. Cosmides (1989, cited in Fiedler & Bless 2001) claims that failure in logical reasoning tasks can be attributed to the fact that they are usually detached from the social context in which reasoning ability has evolved. This is illustrated with the Wasons (1966, cited in Wiggins, Wiggins & Vander Zanden , 1994) card problem. Cosmides (1989, cited in Eysenck & Keane 2000) reports people have no difficulty solving logically equivalent problems, when the rule consists of a social contract, reminiscent of social exchange principles. Similarly, Schaller’s (1992, cited in Baron & Byrne, 1997) work on statistical reasoning highlights how social involvement can trigger logical thinking, suggesting failure to complete logical reasoning tasks can be attributed to a lack of motivation and social involvement, which in turn affects the way new tasks/information is perceived.
Smith and DeCoster (2000), claim that the two distinct processing modes draw on the memory systems in fundamentally different ways. Associative processing (top-down) operates pre-consciously and is based on the properties of the slow learning system (Bargh, 1994). For example when an individual meets a women, the targets gender may elicit retrieval of stored gender stereotypes. Using currently available cues to retrieve representations stored on previous occasions where similar cues were present, information can fill in unobserved details and change the way individuals perceive existing features. Conversely, the defining feature of rule-based (bottom-up) processing is that it uses symbolically represented and intentionally accessed/retrieved knowledge to guide processing (Bargh, 1994). Rule based processing is more effortful and time consuming than associative processing, requiring cognitive capacity as well as motivation. Because rule based processing requires attention, it is subject to distraction and disruption (Logan, 1988). The associative system therefore deals with responses that are made quickly or when the perceiver is busy or distracted. Given adequate time, Chaiken, Liberman and Eagly (1989) suggested rule based responses may override associative responses.