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The OCR Glossary

Social Cognition Theory

Sherry J. Holladay

Social cognition refers to the internal, individual-level mental structures and processes that guide personal perceptions of, inferences about, and subsequent responses to the social world. Social cognition underpins numerous theories, such as those centered on the cognitive structures (schemata) that influence perceptions—including attributes of oneself, people, and social events; attitudes that reflect evaluations of others, issues, and the self and may guide additional internal and external processes; attributions about the causes of behaviors; and explanations of how cognitive structures develop, change, and resist change over time. An assumption shared among theories of social cognition is that an individual’s perception, retention, and sensemaking processes influence interpretations of people and events and subsequently influence their behaviors in social situations.

This entry first describes three primary domains within social cognition theory that are most relevant to the study of reputation: (1) schemata, (2) attitudes, and (3) attributions. It then describes how these theories of social cognition inform current approaches to the study of reputation.


Schemata comprise the basic building blocks of social cognition. Schemata refer to cognitive structures that represent organized knowledge about the attributes of a specific concept (e.g., a person or an event) and the relationships among those attributes. Common types of schemata in social cognition research include person, self, role, and event schemata. Schemata function as memory nodes where information is stored. Schemata guide information processing aimed at newly encountered stimuli and information. When novel stimuli are compared with existing schemata, new information may be evaluated as relatively consistent or inconsistent with the existing schemata within one’s memory. Consistent information is processed and assimilated more easily into existing schema. In contrast, inconsistent information may require greater attentional processes that demand more cognitive effort. The more effortful processing may enhance memory for the inconsistent information. However, when inconsistent information does not receive adequate attention, it may be easily forgotten because it does not conform to the existing schemata.


Although attitudes have been conceptualized in numerous ways, researchers often conceive of them as reflecting the general evaluations people hold about themselves, other people, objects, or issues. Researchers are interested in studying the factors associated with attitude formation and content, attitude change and resistance to change, and the effects of attitudes on behavior. Research on attitudes encompasses cognitive approaches related to attitude consistency, factors affecting message processing, and factors affecting message resistance. The primary goal of attitude-based research is to explain the attitude-behavior connection as it relates to persuasion.

Attribution Theories

Attribution theories assume that people are motivated to “make sense” of the actions they observe and the environment in which they operate by supplying causal explanations for events. The common denominator among theories of attribution is an interest in how people use information to formulate causal inferences. Providing causal explanations for actions observed in particular environments is beneficial to people because it enhances their feelings of control and predictability. For attribution researchers, the accuracy of the attributions is less important than the variables that influence the attributions. For example, individual factors or combinations of factors such as internal causes or external causes, prior expectations, degree of choice, personal dispositions, and social desirability may be identified as responsible for an observed behavior or event. Attribution researchers seek to identify the factors that lead to particular patterns of attribution.

Implications for Corporate Reputation

Reputation can be viewed as a cognitive structure that represents general knowledge about the nature of corporations, the nature of reputation (what content dimensions constitute a corporate reputation), and the relevant evaluative elements of reputation (the positive and negative dimensions that contribute to evaluations of a corporation’s behavior). Thus, general schema about corporations and their actions as well as factors that contribute to positive and negative reputations provide an interpretive framework for processing information about a specific corporation. The way in which the information is processed leads to the formation of attitudes toward the corporation and is assumed to influence behaviors toward the corporation. Thus, researchers first seek to discover and explain the basic dimensions that people use when perceiving and evaluating the behavior of corporations. The information can then provide a foundation for initiatives designed to influence attitudes toward the corporation.

The overall goals of reputation management include cultivating positive beliefs and attitudes toward the corporation and its actions to enhance people’s support for the corporation. However, providing favorable information about a corporation does not guarantee the formation of positive attitudes and supportive behaviors. Variations among individuals—including factors such as prior attitudes, interest, and involvement; selective exposure; selective attention; and selective interpretation—explain why perceptions persist in the face of new information. Furthermore, attribution theory explains that people are motivated to provide causal explanations for observed actions. This means that reputation managers should try to shape people’s sensemaking about the corporation’s actions such that negative outcomes or results arising from corporate actions will be attributed to causes outside the corporation’s control and positive outcomes will be attributed to factors over which the corporation exercises control. Influencing causal attributions of responsibility for outcomes may lead people to view the corporation more favorably and enhance its reputation.

Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1984). Social cognition. New York: Random House.

Holladay, S. J. (2013). Interpersonal communication approaches to reputation. In C. Carroll (Ed.), Handbook of communication and corporate reputation (pp. 20–29). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change. New York: Springer-Verlag.

See Also

Social Construction of Reality; Uncertainty Reduction Theory

See Also

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