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The OCR Glossary

Social Judgment Theory

Alex Bitektine & Djahanchah Ghadiri

Social judgment theory explores how social actors—individuals, groups, organizations, and society at large—evaluate social entities, such as organizations, categories, practices, and social structures. The theory thus deals with evaluators at multiple levels and with social entities (the objects being evaluated) that can be present at different levels of analysis. This entry reviews the history of social judgment theory, the main types of social judgments (feature based and category based), the different levels of evaluators, and the different types of entities that can be subjected to evaluation.

History of Social Judgment Theory

The roots of social judgment theory can be traced to early psychological research on attitudes and judgments in the 1930s and 1950s. Research in the 1950s turned to social aspects of the judgment formation process and highlighted the role of an individual’s ego involvement and values in judgments on controversial social issues. Experimental sociology further advanced this stream of research by introducing social influence from peers or from authorities as an important factor affecting an individual’s judgments about legitimacy and by revealing the ability of judgments to be transferred from one generation of subjects to another. The research on social judgments has also drawn on communications theory, which is concerned with the effect of communications on individuals’ judgments, and economics, which provides important insights on factors that may inhibit individuals’ willingness to express their opinion and even lead to a preference falsification—that is, a situation where an actor expresses a judgment that he or she does not hold. The growing interest in the theory of social judgments has been triggered by a microsociological turn in organizational studies and by the realization of the multilevel nature of the social judgment formation process. Social judgment theory now recognizes fundamental qualitative differences between the different types of judgments that evaluators can render about an entity.

Feature-Based Judgments

The most common feature-based judgments are sociopolitical legitimacy, reputation, and trust.

In a sociopolitical legitimacy judgment, the evaluator benchmarks the observed features of an entity against the prevailing social norms and regulations to assess whether this entity (e.g., organization, category of practice) and its actions, structure, processes, and/or outcomes are socially acceptable. In other words, the evaluator seeks to answer the following questions with this type of judgment: Does the entity “have the right to exist”? Is the entity beneficial or hazardous to (a) me, (b) the social group(s) to which I belong, or (c) the society in which I live? The favorable judgment implies that the entity should be encouraged (or accepted); the unfavorable judgment suggests that the entity should be dismantled, sanctioned, or forced to change.

In a reputation judgment, the evaluator relies on his or her perceptions and past experiences with the entity to identify its unique features that can provide cues with respect to the likely future behavior or outcomes of that entity. For example, for a firm (the most studied type of entity in reputation literature), the reputation judgment usually encompasses assessment of the quality and reliability of its products, its integrity and its aggressiveness (e.g., the likelihood and the nature of its competitive response), and so on. Essentially, with the reputation judgment, the evaluator seeks to find an answer to “How will the entity perform/behave in the future, relative to other entities in the set?”

Trustworthiness can be regarded as another type of social judgment, where the evaluator seeks to determine whether he or she can accept vulnerability based on positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another. Evaluators render this judgment in situations involving risk based on multiple information cues about the entity (i.e., the trustee) and the social context of the interaction. In this process, the evaluator also relies on other judgments (e.g., reputation, legitimacy, etc.), the presence of social control mechanisms, and the assessment of the trustee’s competence, integrity, and benevolence. Nevertheless, the trust judgment appears to be fundamentally distinct from other social judgments since, as opposed to other judgments, it encompasses the evaluator’s subjective assessment of the risk associated with accepting the vulnerability to opportunistic actions of the entity in a given context.

Category-Based Judgments

The most common types of category-based judgments are cognitive legitimacy, status, and identification judgments.

In a cognitive legitimacy judgment, the evaluator classifies an entity as belonging to a certain familiar category, which is defined by a particular set of recognizable features. In other words, the evaluator seeks to answer the question “Does the entity belong to any class or category (that is already familiar and nonproblematic)?” Entities that do not fall into well-established, recognizable categories are often subjected to greater scrutiny and are even avoided by evaluators. For organizations and some other types of entities, this behavioral pattern exhibited by evaluators can produce a liability of newness, or an increased risk of failure in the first years of existence, which then monotonically declines with the entity’s age as evaluators become more familiar with it. To counter this effect, organizations are often advised to draw on existing knowledge and to invoke familiar cognitive categories to facilitate recognition by evaluators.

In a status judgment, the evaluator classifies an entity (e.g., a firm or an individual) as a member of a certain group of actors having a similar performance on a set of relevant dimensions (e.g., quality, price, size, or market share) but different from the performance of actors belonging to other status groups. The status judgment is thus focused on differences in the actors’ social rank that generate privilege or discrimination. With the status judgment, the evaluator seeks to understand where the actor fits in the ranked order of similar actors.

Finally, in identification judgment, the evaluator assesses the degree of affinity or similarity between an entity and one’s self. It has been observed that most of the behaviors adopted by an individual are those that are consistent with the concept of self. Identification can affect an evaluator’s attitudes and actions, depending on whether the entity being evaluated is similar to the evaluator, whether it is part of an in-group the evaluator identifies with, or whether it is part of a competing or comparison out-group. In other words, the evaluator seeks to understand how similar/congruent the entity is relative to the evaluator, to what he or she is. The outcome of favorable identification judgment has often been described as homophily. Identification judgment is distinct from status and cognitive legitimacy judgments since it implies a comparison between the identity of the evaluator and the identity of the entity. It is the similarity and congruence between the identities of the evaluator and the entity on important identity features that create a favorable identification judgment.

Actors Rendering Social Judgments

Individuals represent the most fundamental level of social judgment formation. Higher-level, collective evaluators—such as organizations, organizational categories, and groups of actors—are populated with individuals, and it is individuals who work in the government agencies and other regulatory bodies. Nevertheless, social judgments of these higher-level collective evaluators cannot be always reduced to what occurs by individuals. Even if individuals perceive, analyze, and make judgments, it is often collective actors (organizations, associations, interest groups, governments, etc.) that act on some “collective” social judgment. Thus, collective actors—groups, organizations, categories, and regulatory bodies—perform some form of aggregation of individuals’ judgments and formulate a judgment on behalf of the whole collectivity. In organizations, decisions may be influenced by political processes, by structures and procedures, and by routine responses to recurrent problems. The process of aggregation of individuals’ judgments to a collective level represents an important challenge in research on social judgments.

Entities Being Evaluated

Evaluators render social judgments with respect to fairly diverse types of entities, ranging from persons, positions, and acts to groups, organizations, categories/industries, authorities, and social structures.

Some judgments apply to a narrower scope of entities than others. Generally, category-based judgments apply to social actors at lower levels—individuals, groups, or organizations—that can conceivably be regarded as members of the category in question. In contrast, feature-based judgments are more versatile, since the collection of features to be evaluated may vary without restrictions imposed by a particular cognitive category. Thus, one can talk about legitimacy, reputation, and trust not only with respect to actors (e.g., individuals, groups, or organizations) but also with respect to practices, processes, and social structures.

It should be noted that social evaluations can transfer from one entity to another as evaluators associate entities with each other and with more general categories. These transfers of judgments, which were documented for legitimacy, reputation, status, and trust, are based either on some form of proximity or connectedness of two entities, or on the similarity between them. Social judgment transfers result in horizontal or vertical spillovers. In horizontal spillovers, a judgment about a particular organization may affect how its partners and other members of its social network are judged. Vertical spillovers can be further subdivided into bottom-up transfers, where the judgment of a single entity is extended to the entire category to which it belongs, and top-down transfers, in which a judgment with respect to the whole category is extended to a specific member of that category.

Bitektine, A. (2011). Towards a theory of social judgments of organizations: The case of legitimacy, reputation, and status. Academy of Management Review, 36(1), 151–179.

Bitektine, A., & Haack, P. (2015). The macro and the micro of legitimacy: Towards a multi-level theory of the legitimacy process. Academy of Management Review, 40(1), 49–75.

Sherif, M., & Hovland, C. (1961). Social judgment: Assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude change. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

See Also

Legitimacy; Organizational Identification; Reputational Spillovers; Status

See Also

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