Sitcog Publications

Situated/embodied cognition in social psychology

Recent thinking in many areas of the cognitive sciences has begun to emphasize a novel approach that treats cognition as adaptive behavior and emphasizes the moment-by-moment interaction between the agent and its environment. Although social psychologists have participated little in the development of these emerging viewpoints, four core assumptions are common to current social psychology and the situated/embodied cognition perspective.

  • Cognition is for the adaptive regulation of action, and mental representations are action-oriented.
  • Cognition is embodied, constrained and directed by the nature of our bodies.
  • Cognition and action are the emergent outcome of dynamic processes of interaction between an agent and an environment.
  • Cognition is distributed across brains and the environment (e.g., through the use of tools) and across social agents (e.g., when information is discussed and evaluated in groups).


In recent research, I have been involved in exploring these important conceptual communalities and examining the implications of these new perspectives for many topics in social psychology.

Related Readings: Clark, A. (1997). Being there. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Situated/Embodied Cognition publications

Smith, E. R. (in press). Evil Acts and Malicious Gossip: A Multiagent Model of the Effects of Gossip in Socially Distributed Person Perception. Personality and Social Psychology Review. external link: Malice Feb final with figs.pdf

Levine, J. M., & Smith, E. R. (in press). Group Cognition: Collective Information Search and Distribution. To appear in D. E. Carlston (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Social Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press. external link: PDF

Collins, E. C., Percy, E. J., Smith, E. R., & Kruschke, J. K. (2011). Integrating advice and experience: Learning and decision making with social and non-social cues. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 967-982. DOI: 10.1037/a0022982 external link: PDF

When making decisions, people typically gather information from both social and nonsocial sources, such as advice from others and direct experience. This research adapted a cognitive learning paradigm to examine the process by which people learn what sources of information are credible. When partici- pants relied on advice alone to make decisions, their learning of source reliability proceeded in a manner analogous to traditional cue learning processes and replicated the established learning phenomena. However, when advice and nonsocial cues were encountered together as an established phenomenon, blocking (ignoring redundant information) did not occur. Our results suggest that extant cognitive learning models can accommodate either advice or nonsocial cues in isolation. However, the combination of advice and nonsocial cues (a context more typically encountered in daily life) leads to different patterns of learning, in which mutually supportive information from different types of sources is not regarded as redundant and may be particularly compelling. For these situations, cognitive learning models still constitute a promising explanatory tool but one that must be expanded. As such, these findings have important implications for social psychological theory and for cognitive models of learning.

Smith, E. R., & Collins, E. C. (2009). Contextualizing person perception: Distributed social cognition. Psychological Review, 116, 343-364. DOI: 10.1037/a0015072 external link: PDF

Research on person perception typically emphasizes cognitive processes of information selection and interpretation within the individual perceiver and the nature of the resulting mental representations. The authors focus instead on the ways person perception processes create, and are influenced by, the patterns of impressions that are socially constructed, transmitted, and filtered through social networks. As the socially situated cognition perspective (E. R. Smith & G. R. Semin, 2004) suggests, it is necessary to supplement consideration of intra-individual cognitive processes with an examination of the social context. The authors describe a theoretical model of processes of distributed social cognition that takes account of 3 levels: the individual perceiver, the interacting dyad, and the social network in which they are embedded. The authors’ model assumes that perceivers elicit or create as well as interpret impression- relevant information in dyadic interaction and that perceivers obtain information from 3rd-party sources who are linked to perceivers and targets in social networks. The authors also present results of a multiagent simulation of a subset of these processes. Implications of the theoretical model are discussed, for the possibility of correcting biases in person perception and for the nature of underlying mental representations of persons.

Smith, E. R., & Conrey, F. R. (2009). The social context of cognition. In P. Robbins & M. Aydede (Eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition (pp. 454-466). Cambridge University Press. external link: PDF

Abstract: Cognition almost invariably occurs in the context of other people: the web of face-to-face encounters, personal relationships, and social group memberships that make us who we are. Not only do these social entities very frequently constitute the content of our thoughts and feelings, but they fundamentally shape the processes underlying our cognition and behavior as well. To detail some of the evidence for this broad claim, this chapter describes the interface of situated cognition with social psychology. We make the case that these two fields focus on many of the same empirical and conceptual issues, although sometimes taking different perspectives. Following a brief section that introduces the field of social psychology, the main body of the chapter is organized under four broad principles that we believe capture major areas of overlap and common interest between situated cognition and social psychology.

Smith, E. R. (2008). Social relationships and groups: New insights on embodied and distributed cognition. Cognitive Systems Research, 9, 24-32. external link: PDF

Abstract: The field of social psychology – defined by its focus on the social aspects of human cognition and behavior – has in recent years begun to make contact with emerging perspectives in the cognitive sciences generally, especially the themes of embodiment and distributed cognition. This chapter reviews contributions of social psychology in these areas, with a particular focus on the intersection of embodied and distributed cognition. Research regarding embodiment in psychology and cognitive science has generally focused on implications of embodiment for individual-level functioning—for example, on the role of sensori-motor systems in mental representations. But embodied cues also contribute to relational functioning—linking the perceiver to other people—and thereby influence a broad array of social/relational processes, such as liking, interpersonal coordination, and prosocial behavior. In the area of distributed cognition, research in social psychology on group interaction and problem-solving, and in cognitive science on collective search tasks, is now converging on powerful and insightful descriptions of the processes that allow a group to discover good potential solutions without closing off consideration of diverse alternatives. Research in this area has only begun to incorporate the insights of the embodiment principle, which offers interesting and novel hypotheses for potential exploration.

Smith, E. R., & Semin, G. R. (2007). Situated social cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 132-135. external link: PDF

Abstract: Social cognition refers to the mental representations and processes that underlie social judgments and behavior—for example, the application of stereotypes to members of social groups. Theories of social cognition have generally assumed that mental representations are abstract and stable and that they are activated and applied by relatively automatic, context-independent processes. Recent evidence is inconsistent with these expectations, however. Social-cognitive processes have been shown to be adaptive to the perceiver’s current social goals, communicative contexts, and bodily states. Although these findings can often be given ad hoc explanations within current conceptual frameworks, they invite a fuller integration with the broad intellectual movement emphasizing situated cognition. Such an approach has already been influential in many areas within psychology and beyond, and theories in the field of social cognition would benefit by taking advantage of its insights.

Mason, W. A., Conrey, F. R., & Smith, E. R. (2007). Situating social influence processes: Dynamic, multidirectional flows of influence within social networks. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 279-300. external link: PDF

Abstract: Social psychologists have studied the psychological processes involved in persuasion, conformity, and other forms of social influence, but they have rarely modeled the ways influence processes play out when multiple sources and targets of influence interact over time. However, workers in other fields from sociology and economics to cognitive science and physics have recognized the importance of social influence and have developed models of influence flow in populations and groups—generally without relying on detailed social psychological findings. This article reviews models of social influence from a number of fields, categorizing them using four conceptual dimensions to delineate the universe of possible models. The goal is to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations to build models that incorporate the detailed, microlevel understanding of influence processes derived from focused laboratory studies, but contextualized in ways that recognize how multidirectional, dynamic influences are situated in people’s social networks and relationships.

Smith, E. R., & Conrey, F. R. (2007). Agent-based modeling: A new approach for theory-building in social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 87-104. external link: PDF

Abstract: Most social and psychological phenomena occur not as the result of isolated decisions by individuals, but rather as the result of repeated interactions between multiple individuals over time. Yet the theory-building and modeling techniques most commonly used in social psychology are less than ideal for understanding such dynamic and interactive processes. This paper describes an alternative approach to theory-building, agent-based modeling (ABM), which involves the simulation of large numbers of autonomous agents that interact over time with each other and with a simulated environment, and the observation of emergent patterns from their interactions. We believe that the ABM approach is better able than prevailing approaches in our field, variable-based modeling (VBM) techniques such as causal modeling, to capture the types of complex, dynamic, interactive processes that are so important in the social world. The paper elaborates several important contrasts between ABM and VBM, and offers specific recommendations for learning more and applying the ABM approach.

Smith, E. R., & Semin, G. R. (2004). Socially situated cognition: Cognition in its social context. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 36, 53-117. external link: PDF

Abstract: We propose a new integration of social psychology and situated cognition, which we term socially situated cognition (SSC). This new approach rests directly on recent developments in psychology and cognitive science captured by the label situated cognition, but also has roots going back to William James and Frederick Bartlett. The approach involves a shift in the guiding metaphor regarding cognition and action, from computation to biology, and highlights four core assumptions that are common to current social psychology and the situated cognition perspective. (a) Cognition is for the adaptive regulation of action, and mental representations are action-oriented. (b) Cognition is embodied, constrained and directed by the nature of our bodies. (c) Cognition and action are the emergent outcome of dynamic processes of interaction between an agent and an environment. (d) Cognition is distributed across brains and the environment (e.g., through the use of tools) and across social agents (e.g., when information is discussed and evaluated in groups). With regard to each of these themes, we review and integrate relevant social psychological research, and also suggest ways in which the theme can be carried further by rethinking current assumptions. Our overall goals are both to make social psychology part of the interdisciplinary integration emerging around the concept of situated cognition, and to advance these four themes as high-level conceptual principles that can organize seemingly disparate areas of research and theory within social psychology itself.

Semin, G. R., & Smith, E. R. (2002). Interfaces of social psychology with situated and embodied cognition. Cognitive Systems Research, 3, 385-396. external link: PDF

Abstract: The recent rise of interest in situated and embodied cognition has a strong interdisciplinary flavor, with contributions from robotics, cognitive anthropology, cognitive psychology, and developmental psychology, among other disciplines. However, social psychology has been almost completely unrepresented. Social psychologists investigate the ways people perceive, interact with, and influence each other, and this field therefore offers an ideal standpoint for the investigation of many of the most central aspects and themes of the situated cognition approach—because the relevant ‘situation’ in which cognition takes place is, almost always, a social situation defined by an individual’s group memberships, personal relationships, and social and communicative goals. This paper briefly reviews social psychological research and theory related to five major themes of situated and embodied cognition. The themes are: cognition is for action; cognition is situated (radically affected by situations, and makes use of situations as resources); artifacts and situations effectively extend cognitive processes out beyond the individual; cognition is embodied; and situated cognition affects and interacts with symbolically based thought.