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What Are the Differences Between Social Psychology and Cognitive Psychology? (Explained)

What Are the Differences Between Social Psychology and Cognitive Psychology? (Explained)

If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the basic differences between cognitive psychology and social psychology— but do you know exactly what cognitive psychology and social psychology are?

Below, we’ll discuss the key ways that these two types of psychology differ from one another, and we’ll also examine the origins of each field to show how they both developed over time.

Cognitive and social psychology are both closely related to one another, but they also have their differences. The purpose of this article is to help highlight the similarities and differences between cognitive and social psychology by addressing what they are, how they were created, and how they both operate in today’s world.

By the end of this article, you will learn what exactly the difference between social psychology and cognitive psychology is and why there are differences between the two fields that study human behavior.

What Is Social Psychology?

Social psychology is a relatively new field, first developing in its modern form during World War II. In order to better understand group dynamics and behavior, psychologists began studying social situations and how they affected our individual actions.

There are three main areas of focus in social psychology: interpersonal relations, group dynamics, and social perception. Interpersonal relationships are those between individuals; for example, friendships or romantic relationships fall under that category.

Group dynamics examine how people interact with each other when part of a larger unit, such as a team or family. Finally, social perception focuses on forming an impression of another person based on that person’s actions.

This may seem like common sense, but it’s actually one of the most difficult things we do—and one that can have serious consequences if we’re wrong about someone.

For example, social psychologists study stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination to see why we make assumptions about others before getting to know them. Understanding these processes helps us avoid making unfair judgments.

Social Cognitive Theory

What Is Cognitive Psychology?

The field of cognitive psychology seeks to understand how we think, pay attention, remember things, solve problems and make decisions. It’s closely related to other disciplines that study attention, memory, intelligence, or language. The term cognitive was coined by American psychologist William James in 1890.

At first, it referred only to cognition but after a few decades broadened in meaning to include all mental processes such as perception and imagination. In recent years, a major focus has been on how different parts of the brain contribute to these processes. Cognitive psychologists are interested in how people:

  • Process information from their senses (perception)
  • Organize information into categories (categorization)
  • Learn new information (learning)
  • Recall previously learned information (memory)
  • Reason with abstract concepts (abstraction)
  • Make decisions about what actions to take (decision making).

Some researchers also use computer models for studying human thought processes. This approach is called computational cognitive modeling. Cognitive psychologists may be involved in educational research, work with patients suffering from brain injuries or disorders like schizophrenia, or conduct basic research on topics like attention and consciousness. They might also be involved in applied research where they develop tests for use in schools or workplaces.

Cognitive Psychology 101

Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. Simply put, cognitive psychology studies how people think.

It looks at ways to improve attention, learn new information faster, understand the text more quickly, memorize faster, etc. in an effort to improve problem-solving ability throughout life.

Cognitive psychologists also study language acquisition, reasoning skills, decision making, memory storage and retrieval (including eyewitness testimony), sensory perception, imagination, and creativity.

There are a lot of subfields within cognitive psychology including: developmental (how cognition changes over time), social (how cognition interacts with other people), and experimental (studying cognition by conducting experiments).

Cognitive psychologists use a variety of research methods including surveys, interviews/questionnaires, and brain imaging techniques like fMRIs to better understand how our minds work.

How Do They Relate to Personality Theory?

The field of psychology is all about understanding human behavior. For psychologists, a large part of human behavior boils down to personality, which psychologists describe as our enduring patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving across different situations.

Psychologists come from many different backgrounds and subfields, but nearly all recognize that personality comes from both nature (our genes) and nurture (the environment).

However, each subfield has its own perspective on where personality originates in our biology. Whereas social psychologists focus on how personality develops through interactions with other people, cognitive psychologists are more interested in how it emerges from our internal mental processes.

In other words, social and cognitive psychologists study two very different parts of what makes us who we are.

How Do They Relate to Happiness?

While both social and cognitive psychologists are concerned with questions related to happiness, they tend to define it differently.

According to psychologist Daniel Gilbert, there are two main definitions of happiness: an emotional state—or happiness 1—and an evaluative judgment—or happiness 2.

He argues that while emotions provide us with momentary experiences of pleasure or pain, judgments give rise to longer-lasting feelings like pride or shame. Emotions can certainly have a powerful impact on happiness. However, research suggests that judgments may play just as important a role in shaping our overall well-being.

Origins of Social and Cognitive Psychologies

The first formal study of social psychology began in 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt—the father of experimental psychology—set up a lab to investigate how we experience events collectively, as opposed to individually. In 1938, psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman were inspired by Wundt’s work to explore how humans react to ambiguous stimuli.

Allport and Postman eventually developed Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which has since been adapted for use in psychotherapy sessions. Today, TAT is used to help patients understand their emotions through stories. Meanwhile, cognitive psychology got its start in 1956 with Ulric Neisser’s book Cognitive Psychology.

Since then, cognitive psychologists have focused on understanding mental processes such as perception and memory that can be described using information processing models.

Differences Between Social and Cognitive Psychology

Both cognitive psychology and social psychology are subfields of psychology that focus on mental processes. However, they differ in their areas of emphasis.

Social PsychologyCognitive Psychology
Concerned with how people’s interactions affect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviorTends to be more interested in information processing and memory. This field focuses on how we acquire knowledge from our experiences (cognition) and then use it to make decisions (decision making).
Social psychology look at ways humans engage socially and why they do that. Cognitive psychology is the look at ways we assume how we make judgments approximately, our stories inside the realm of our belief, or how the mind features in phrases of conduct.
Social psychology looks at how on-the-spot inputs impact a reaction.Cognitive psychology allows the discovery of sensible approaches to inspire higher reminiscence retention and the processing of facts in a correct manner
Social vs. Cognitive Psychology

These interactions include how people think about themselves (self-concept), interact with others (attitudes), or form relationships with other people (groups). It’s likely that your understanding of these concepts is based on studies done by social psychologists.

On the other hand, cognitive psychologists tend to be more interested in information processing and memory. So what exactly does each field do? And what does each have to offer? Let’s take a look at some of their main differences

Social psychology focuses on how an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by others. For example conformity, obedience, altruism, verbal expectancy effect, and leader-follo effects.

Cognitive psychology focuses on mental activities such as thinking, perceiving, learning & knowing.

For example sensation and perception, attention, memory consolidation and retrieval, language acquisition process, etc.


The Future of Social, Cognitive Psychology is in Our Hands: The differences between social and cognitive psychology aren’t that stark—and, really, they shouldn’t be. Both areas are concerned with how humans behave. And when it comes to society’s challenges—particularly when it comes to bias or prejudice—we need all hands on the deck.

So whether you want to focus on social behavior or cognition (or a little bit of both), there’s room for you in psychology. If you find yourself drawn more towards one than the other, then maybe that means that either field will be a good fit for you. Or, perhaps, it just means that you should look into some other fields as well.

After all, every major field has its own strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps cognitive psychology isn’t right for you because it isn’t your passion; if so, don’t force yourself into a career path that doesn’t excite you! Instead, look at other fields where your skills might be better suited.

Maybe marketing would be perfect for someone who loves working with people but doesn’t think hard about what makes us tick? Or maybe biology would work well for someone who loves science but struggles to interact with others? There’s no harm in exploring different paths.

In the end, I hope this article was of value to you in understanding the differences between social and cognitive psychology.

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