Topic 8: Social cognition

[Back to the course overview]

We begin with a very general consideration of what we are studying as we open up the rich theme of social cognition. We note that there is an important, and often overlooked, relation between the manner in which we characterize the individual, and the manner in which we understand the social. There will thus be considerable tension in what follows when we consider the role played by psychological accounts of the person.

Here we briefly revise some material we covered earlier in the module that will be important as we approach our sketch of human social cognition

We consider social organisation in primates and in insects and eusocial animals, including the naked mole rat. We observe that the biological makeup of the individual organism does not determine everything about the resulting kind of social organisation.

More to come….Here we meet the intriguing Spindle Cell neurons (also called von Economo neurons) that are found in apes but not in monkeys. We discuss convergent evolution and then we address the surprising finding that spindle cell neurons have evolved independently in several other species.

We meet creepy Harry Harlow whose work on attachment gave rise to attachment theory, and inadvertently also to an awareness of ethical issues in the use of animals. I suggest we should best understand his work in light of major social changes in the US after the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Now we turn to Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience and authority. This work needs to be understood in light of anxiety after World War 2, and the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.

We now encounter the most infamous “experiment” in the sad history of social psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment. The relevant social backdrop to this theatre is the social unrest that accompanied the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam war.

One last sad example of poor science done under the banner of “social psychology”. Here we look at Dunbar’s number, and the fear around social media, and we draw an important lesson for living in the time of the virus.

Required reading

Creepy scientist proves that we need social interaction Some more information about Harry Harlow and his creepy experiments

Read about the famous Milgram Obedience experiment here

A recent re-interpretation and re-imagination of the classic experiment is described in this Scientific American article.

A second account of the same recent (non) replication is given in this Nature article. You are asked to read either this one or the previous one.

Slideshow about the Stanford Prison Experiment from the original experimenter himself, Philip Zimbardo

Compare that with this interview with one of the original guards (via an AMA on Reddit)

Further resources

There is a whole lecture by Harry Harlow here. It is called “The Nature of Love”.