Journal of Mental Health and Human Behaviour

: 2017  |  Volume : 22  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 27--34

Social cognition and individual effectiveness in interpersonal scenarios: A conceptual review

Nilamadhab Kar1, Brajaballav Kar2,  
1 Department of Psychiatry, Black Country Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, The Beeches, Penn Hospital, Wolverhampton, WV4 5HN, UK
2 Production and Operations, School of Management, KIIT University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India

Correspondence Address:
Nilamadhab Kar
Department of Psychiatry, Black Country Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, The Beeches, Penn Hospital, Penn Road, Wolverhampton, WV4 5HN


Social cognition, the ability to act wisely in social interaction, is being actively researched in various fields besides the clinical, behavioral, and psychological sciences. The objectives of this paper are to review the conceptual basis of social cognition and its applicability in the areas of social competence and effectiveness in interpersonal environments. Social cognitive skills enable understanding of social situations. The relationship between social cognitive skills and ability of emotional decoding of self and others has been explored. The paper discusses various processes that are operative in the interactional scenarios and have relevance in individual effectiveness. Concepts such as emotional intelligence, trait transference, person-perception, categorical thinking, and knowledge construction have been discussed in relation to social cognition and effectiveness. The role of thoughts, feelings, expectations, and relational schemas in interpersonal situations has been linked to performances. In addition, effectiveness is influenced by motivated social cognitions, ego-tasks, global, and context-specific goals. Various strategies such as cognitive and social problem-solving and proactive-coping have been elaborated which lead to better outcomes in interpersonal environments.

How to cite this article:
Kar N, Kar B. Social cognition and individual effectiveness in interpersonal scenarios: A conceptual review.J Mental Health Hum Behav 2017;22:27-34

How to cite this URL:
Kar N, Kar B. Social cognition and individual effectiveness in interpersonal scenarios: A conceptual review. J Mental Health Hum Behav [serial online] 2017 [cited 2021 Jan 27 ];22:27-34
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Cognition is at the core of human effectiveness. It is defined as the process of obtaining, organizing, and utilizing information. Cognitive science in recent years has focused on information processing, schemata, and control of action. Social cognition focuses on the mental processes involved during interpersonal, group, and social interactions. In simple terms, it may be described as the ability to act wisely in social interactions.[1]

Social cognition involves to an extent one's “ability to read other people's minds,” a capacity to see the point of view of others, contributing to the ability to empathize.[2] Although social cognition is a set of specific cognitive abilities, it is also viewed as a field of study [Box 1].[3][INLINE:1]

The domains of social cognition include the study of verbal and nonverbal communications, empathy, person-perception, relationship characteristics, and group processes. It also includes the studies of memory for social interactions, stereotyping, and attribution bias. Related to these are the subjects of mental control of social cognitive processes and cognitive origins of the “sense of self.” Social cognitions utilize basic components such as attention, perception, encoding, memory, and retrieval, linked to information-processing theory. The processes that influence interpretations of social situations and actions in such situations are a major focus of social cognition research.[4]

Besides interpersonal one-to-one situations, social cognitions help to understand the subtle aspects of group interactions, specifically how a group “thinks.” It supports the individual to understand the unspoken social interaction game rules that are implicitly communicated and rarely spelled out.[2] Persons who have difficulties in acquiring the ability to understand the communications, both verbal and nonverbal, emotional nuances of others, or who fail to comprehend the subtleties of group functioning may have trouble getting by socially and may feel left out, as an outsider, vulnerable and may feel uncomfortable in social situations impairing their effectiveness.

Metacognitive monitoring which is thinking about one's own thinking is relevant in studies of social cognitions. The metacognitive monitoring involves attention to thinking sequences, errors, and contradictions in thought content and flawed logic. It may include processes such as planning and monitoring activities, checking outcomes,[4] and developing a knowledge base about what works and what does not in a particular scenario. This knowledge helps in selecting particular strategies for learning and for problem-solving.

There are a few themes that are often reflected by the social cognitive researches. First: people are usually good observers of social interactions; they build up meanings through patterns of behavior, stories they observe, stereotypes, and traits although their thinking strategies often depend on or influenced by their goals.[5] While thinking is linked to activities, social cognitions link social understandings with social interactions,[5] and activities leading to improved competence and effectiveness.

The objectives of this paper are to project the conceptual basis of social cognition and its applicability in various interpersonal situations requiring social competence and effectiveness. The paper tries to explore the links between interpersonal and social achievement and the core processes of social cognition.


A comprehensive literature search was conducted on electronic databases including PubMed, EMBASE, and PsycINFO using key words: social cognition, effectiveness, individual, and interpersonal, along with allied topics. The cross-references of the chosen articles were evaluated as potential source of information in this topic. Manual search of various related books and other publications were also done, especially for the associated concepts. For some of the materials, authors were contacted directly for further information.

 Basic Cognitive Processes and Social Cognition

Mind is a processor of information. Information is contained within the patterns of activation of neural circuits, termed as mental representation. These representations serve as “symbols” that cause effects in mind, leading to the processing of information.[4] Thinking involves managing these mental representations. The basic components of thinking include categorization, judgment, decision-making, and problem-solving. Thinking depends on explicit and implicit memory of the past experiences and gets influenced by emotional states and mental models. States of mind, a conglomeration of mental representations, are the primary mechanism by which the brain organizes its activity. Mental functioning may depend on a flow of states of mind through time that is adaptive to the ever-changing environment and allow the individual to draw freely from the learning from the past experience.

Working memory is an important aspect in the cognitive process, which is relevant for effectiveness. Working memory allows briefly holding and manipulating information essential for comprehension, reasoning, planning, and executing. It is the central element organizing thinking, language, and behavior.[6] Well-timed and befitting responses or problem-solving depend on an effective working memory. Understandably, it is a predictor of both verbal and nonverbal problem-solving [7] and is causally related to success in higher thinking.

Social behavior is considered being under one's conscious control. However, it is suggested that social behavior often operates in an implicit or unconscious fashion. It is believed that the past experiences influence the judgment in a way that is not introspectively known by the person.[8]

 Concepts Associated with Social Cognition

Emotion and social cognition

Emotions have a key role in cognitive processing. As a value system of the brain, emotions selectively reinforce activations within specific circuits of brain. Through the arousal/appraisal system, mediated by emotions, the brain responds to the signals as “This is important-take note and pay attention now.”[9]

Mood can be used to guide cognitive constructions as emphasized by motivated cognitive approaches. The positive mood may lead to perception of different and greater number of interpretations in a given situation, identification of more appropriate and creative solutions to the problem. It may increase the ability to take control of the strategies used to deal with particular situations. In essence, positive mood states bring in greater flexibility and a range of options in handling social situations.[3],[10]

The theory of emotional intelligence integrating cognitive and neurological sciences provides insight into social cognition. The competencies of emotional intelligence are essential elements in the self-management of emotions and building and maintaining rewarding relationships. Emotional intelligence includes abilities in five main areas: “self-awareness, managing emotions, motivating oneself, recognizing emotions in others, and handling emotions.”[11] Recognizing one's own feelings as they arise is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Greater self-understanding and insight come from the ability to monitor feelings from moment to moment. The capacity of having appropriate emotional reactions in situ ations builds on self-awareness. Emotional resilience helps one to overcome the setbacks and upsets in everyday life, interactions, and social situations.

Emotions and life-goals are intricately connected; emotional self-control such as controlling impulsivity and delaying gratification is important in the process of working toward and achieving life goals.[12] It is obvious that being able to focus on a goal that needs long-term determination, and effort is essential for a range of accomplishments. In summary, understanding and managing emotions of self and others are a vital element for the effectiveness in interactional contexts.

Interaction, communication, and social cognitions

The information one obtains in daily life is usually related to specific people, events, and situations. Social cognition helps in comprehension, verification, and usability of such information. Comprehension is a process of constructing situation models of new information on the basis of related, previously formed, and existing models.[13] As a method of understanding other people, individuals regularly build and use categorical representations. This simplifies and streamlines the process of perceiving and making sense of people, and associated interactions, situations, and issues. This categorical thinking is commonly observed in usual interpersonal or social interactions of everyday life and influences communications, their effectiveness, and outcome.[3],[14]

People learn about others through communications and social interactions and in the process interacting individuals form ideas/opinions/schema about each-others. This has been explored further in an interesting concept of “spontaneous trait transference:” a phenomenon, in which the communicators are perceived as having traits that they describe in others. These effects occur even when the implied traits are not consistent with the prior knowledge of the individuals about the communicators. In this connection, “spontaneous trait inferences” are observed when the communicators describe about themselves.[15] There is evidence to suggest that the phenomenon of spontaneous trait transference often reflects irrational and unnecessary associations rather than logical attributions. However, it plays a role in social perception and interaction.[16] This may lead to erroneous categorization and bias which may be repetitive and affect communication. In this regard, it is imperative to understand this phenomenon in the context of social effectiveness.

The social and interpersonal interactions are laden with affective elements which are extremely important in communications. The affective reactions individuals have are dependent on their judgment whether the other person or communicator deserves or does not deserve it. It is often associated with their perceptions of the right or wrong, justice and injustice, and degree of appreciation. In a social cognitive process, values, seriousness, deservingness, and responsibility are important factors which determine the perceptions and affective reactions of the communicating individuals.[17]


Individual effectiveness is heavily dependent on the knowledge base about the context, interactional dynamics, and social or interpersonal expectations. In this regard, “the desire for knowledge” has been emphasized as a motivational variable in social cognition literature.[18] The knowledge-construction is a complex process and may take time to build up. The process draws on background understandings activated from memory and the information from an immediate context. This is the key for building a knowledge-base in the areas of interest which can be broad but connected. However, people can be sometimes too focused to search for information relevant only to the current issue/hypothesis and ignore information which may be useful for the alternative.[19] Similarly, there are other cognitive processes that may affect decision-making which ultimately influences effectiveness. The desire to eliminate ambiguity and arrive at definite conclusions (cognitive closure) even though sometimes irrationally and the desire to avoid closure suspending the judgmental commitment have been described;[18] including lack of closure that leaves a situation in ambiguity. Understanding regarding these and one's cognitive approach and managing these in different situations can spell success.


Self-efficacy indicates beliefs of people about their own ability to act and accomplish in different situations. It is a conglomeration of “multilevel and multifaceted set of beliefs” that influences people during various tasks about how they feel, think, behave, and motivate themselves.[20] Self-efficacy may be general or social. General self-efficacy is the beliefs about one's global abilities, and social self-efficacy is the ability to navigate social situations. Evidence suggests that these are connected to the degree of social anxiety.[21] It has been argued that self-efficacy may predict behavior;[22] and in this way can influence one's effectiveness.

Art of relationship and social competence

The skill in managing others' emotions is the key in developing and maintaining relationships. This leads to effective interpersonal and social interactions and improves competence. Social competence brings about interpersonal effectiveness, leadership, and popularity.[11] One of these skills, empathy, based in emotional self-awareness, is an essential element for the interpersonal understanding. The individuals who can pick up the subtle social cues that suggest how others feel, and address it appropriately are reported to be more successful in their personal, social, and professional interactions and relations.[23]

The interpersonal expectation is an important concept related to social competence. It influences information processing and outcome in these contexts. Interpersonal information is cognitively represented in various ways. The central construct in this is the “relational schema.” Relational schemas are conceptualized as “associative network of knowledge about typical interpersonal situations and the thoughts and feelings experienced in those situations”. Following repeated exposure to an interactional pattern, individuals develop an expectation of a particular type interpersonal communication and outcome. This is represented cognitively as a repeating story or script for the typical interaction between oneself and other individual.[24] From a social cognitive context, conceptualizing interpersonal expectations as relational schemas are helpful, as these can be evaluated through cognitive processes like attention, recall, and reaction time paradigms. For example, following a setback, people may recall rejection specifically when thinking back on the event, may become particularly attentive about the negative responses, may interpret neutral, or ambiguous responses as rejection. Similarly, repeated conditional acceptance by a significant other may make a person more self-critical about failures, which may lead to chronic low self-esteem.[24] This may impact on their social effectiveness.

In a similar way, relationship in a group context is also a useful construct influencing the effectiveness of an individual. Of particular interest are the communication and feedback within a group, which are known to be related to group performance and effectiveness. It has been observed that productivity increases significantly over time as a consequence of positive and effective communication and receiving performance feedback.[25] It is important in this context, how these feedbacks are provided and received.


Self-esteem is associated with achievement in many ways. Often self-esteem is constructed contingent on successes and failure in societal measures. This drives people for achievements and acceptance. Successes augment self-esteem, whereas failures undermine it, as they are linked to cognitions of being accepted or rejected by others. Social cognitions play an important role in the interpretation of the interpersonal behaviors suggesting acceptance or rejection. Individuals identify conditional versus unconditional interpersonal acceptance, but they differ in their degree of anticipation. It is obvious that social construction of self-esteem is influenced by these factors.[24]

The perception that the interpersonal or group acceptance is highly conditional contributes significantly to the self-esteem problems, depression, and anxiety.[24],[26] Frequent experience of conditional acceptance can lead to chronically low self-esteem, nonperformance, failure to achieve the expectations of others, and may result in cognitions of worthlessness or uselessness. Low self-esteem can lead to a continuous struggle impacting on performance and effectiveness.

 Social Cognition and Clinical Relevance

The relevance of social cognition in clinical conditions is multidirectional. Impairments in social cognition are obvious in many psychiatric conditions, which have been studied through various approaches including clinical, genetic, neuroimaging methods, etc.[27],[28],[29] These studies have provided insight into various social cognitive processes, their possible biological or neurophysiological underpinnings, and functional implications. On the other hand, as a construct, social cognition helps for understanding the psychosocial manifestations and disabilities in psychiatric disorders. This knowledge has been instrumental in designing interventions to improve social cognitive skills of the patients. Although detailed description of the social cognitive deficits in psychiatric disorders is not the focus of this article, few examples are given here [Box 2] about psychiatric disorders with social cognitive deficits. There are ample studies suggesting management of social cognitive impairments as focused intervention in psychiatric disorders.[INLINE:2]

It has been suggested that social cognitive deficits could be a marker for psychiatric disorders.[39] Considering that these deficits are shared by the relatives of psychiatric patients, it highlights the probable genetic basis of the social cognition.[40],[41] For example, these deficits in autism cosegregate with conceptually related personality, social and language features,[42] and executive functions.[43] Social cognitive deficits can explain the community and vocational functioning or guide the rehabilitation,[44],[45],[46] suggesting possibility of developing specific remediation strategies.[47],[48] There may also be a prognosticating role of social cognitions for the outcomes.

 Social Cognitive Strategies Improving Effectiveness

Various factors and strategies are linked to improving individual effectiveness [Box 3], some of which are further discussed here. These understandings are not only relevant in clinical situations for therapeutic benefit, but these can be extrapolated to general wellbeing, rehabilitation, interpersonal, and occupational scenarios with a need for individual and group effectiveness.[INLINE:3]

Cognitive strategies are mental plans of a person to understand self and environment and deal with the issues. These strategies for making sense of situations and planning responses translate goals, mood, prior knowledge, and expertise into appropriate actions in a particular context.[3] This is termed as “motivated social cognition.”[10] In this regard, it is important to be flexible in adjusting the interpretations of the characteristics of a situation, taking control of one's thoughts and plans, exploring different alternatives while interpreting the same issue or outcome, and in changing the knowledge base with new information and experiences. This may also involve reworking previously held understandings, standards, and goals. Often the situations dictate the specific tasks and goals for the individual at that time; however, the individual decides the response based on multiple variables including the difficulties they anticipate in the situation and probable solutions.[49] In search of the strategies of response, individuals sometimes adapt their interpretations to the situations intelligently and flexibly, rather than being stuck with some specific features. However, the later can happen, and individuals may take particular course of action influenced by rigid adherence to a few points. In fact, the social cognition literature is skewed toward representing more passive, less flexible ways of dealing with situations where previous knowledge and beliefs contribute to present interpretations and strategies for action.

In the interpersonal and social situations, individuals sometimes adjust their interpretations to deal with apparent concerns and constraints; and on occasions take active control in constructing the situations. Some situations may be more responsive to the individual's actions and expertise than others. In addition, belief in having control, one's own capabilities, and mastery in a stressful situation may lead to effective management of the situation; however, this may depend on the fact that the situation is actually controllable.[10],[50]


Goals contribute to one's effectiveness in many ways, at the least by motivating the behavior toward achieving it. They are not only imposed by the environment or the needs but also they may be sometimes designed by the individual in the particular situation. Goals have been conceptualized in various ways. These may be global or abstract which is relevant in a variety of situations or they may be concrete and context specific.[3] Some of them are relevant to self rather than to groups or masses. Examples of global goals are maintenance and enhancement of self-esteem and propagation of self-concept. Global goals lead to the formation of many specific goals in the process toward achieving the overarching personal objective.[51] Underlying goals influence one's behavior and become catalyst for actions leading to effectiveness in specific situations.

At a more instrumental level, individuals construct self-relevant goals such as life tasks.[10] These may include concrete personal achievement and interpersonal goals. Personal projects focus on a single objective, task, or accomplishment.[52] Sometimes, goals are related to the situational context. These situation specific goals may be linked to a global or abstract goal. Current goals help individuals organize their prior knowledge which can guide their interpretation of current situations. Research suggests that past experiences make people particularly responsive to the current situation. However, recall of past responses, actions and behavior are often biased to be consistent with current attitudes.[53]

People adjust their strategies in different situations, being flexible, to accomplish their abstract goal. The concrete, issue-specific goals work toward achieving this higher goal. Ego-tasks such as management of personal impression and self-image in an interactional context include those situation-specific strategies that lead to the ultimate achievement of global goals.[10] Goals, global or context specific, influence behavior, and affect performances which ultimately map the degree of achievement.

Constructing scenarios

While making interpretations and planning response in a particular situation, individuals often play through probable options and adjust their strategies to the imagined outcomes. The “simulation-heuristic” is a method of constructing scenarios of events, which is usually conducted dissecting the past to “undo” it and learn from the events and their outcomes.[3] Some individuals use “defensive pessimism,” selectively playing through the bad outcomes. They try to buffer themselves against negative outcomes by having low expectations and through increased effort.[10] Understanding the process of constructing scenarios and playing through the responses may help in evaluating possible options and finding an appropriate one or building confidence for actual situations. This may ultimately improve effectiveness.

Cognitive problem-solving

Various cognitive processes mediate the strategies of problem-solving. At a very basic level, cognitive problem-solving involves: specifying the problem, identifying distorted ideas or viewpoints, changing the faulty or constricted views of the situations, confronting irrational interpretations of the actions of other people, challenging unhelpful assumptions underlying the problem and generating solution options for the problem. This also involves choosing the most appropriate solution and to test its effectiveness. Often individuals tend to repeat the cognitive actions taken earlier, regardless of the content of the current problem. Cognitive actions associated in this process are “the retrieval of the problem, information processing, logical formulation of a plan of action, execution of plan, and response evaluation”.[54] It is well known that individuals try to reduce the complexity while processing the information about the reality of the situation. Adequate handling of the situations requires appropriate structuring and integration of available information. Social cognitions as tools are helpful in this process, especially when the problems are in the interpersonal, group, or larger organizational domains.

Social problem-solving

Social problem-solving refers to the method of resolving social problems or conflicts appropriately and successfully.[3] This ability contributes to the social competence and effective interpersonal/social functioning of the individual. Higher cognitive skills for social problem-solving have been linked to better adjustment. Various types of thinking have been linked to better problem-solving. These include: “alternate thinking,” “consequential thinking” (the ability to anticipate the consequences of one's actions on others), and “means-end thinking” (step-by-step problem-solving).[3] In this process of social problem-solving, social sensitivity and role-taking skills are extremely helpful. The “interactional - specific approach” emphasizes the need to specify abilities demanded by a particular context. This suggests the importance of upgrading certain specific skills which may be required to deal with the situation. Few examples are effective decision-making, communication and assertive skills, effective information seeking behavior, mutual cooperation skills, and conflict resolution skills.[55]

Social decision-making approaches bring together various components such as social cognitions, affective responses, behavior, and social relationship with critical thinking skills important for problem-solving.[3] Effectiveness in a difficult or challenging social environment is influenced by complex social cognitive processes. These processes emphasize the contribution of cooperation and meta-cognition in developing advanced thinking skills which have shown to improve creativity in cooperative environments.[56]


Proactive-coping encompasses a process of anticipating or detecting potential stressful life events or situations and acts in advance to prevent them developing or deal with them effectively to decrease their adverse impact.[3] It is an extremely important parameter for individual effectiveness, based on social cognitive and stress research. Five stages in proactive-coping have been suggested. They are (i) resource accumulation, (ii) identification of potential stressors, (iii) initial appraisal, (iv) preliminary coping efforts, and (v) elicitation and use of feedback related to initial efforts.[57]

Social cognitive training

Most of the information regarding social cognitive skill training literature is based on clinical population,[58],[59],[60],[61] studies on normal adults are rare.[62] It has been suggested that the social cognitive deficits may predict social outcomes better than the neuropsychological deficits, and may improve following intervention.[63] The components of social cognitive skills training include various steps. Initially, complex social cognitive processes are broken down into their component skills. In the next step, training for the social skills is undertaken at the most fundamental level, and gradually the complexity of skills required is increased. The practice is repeated until the skills are embedded through frequent experiences and utilized in interpersonal and social situations. Later, the training involves increasingly complex modules such as emotional processing, social perception, attributional bias, and mentalizing.[64] Emotion recognition and mental-state reasoning training, cognitive remediation, training to either imitate or to inhibit imitation, and observational learning are examples of few other approaches.[59],[62] Cognitive remediation has been reported to activate neuroplasticity and improve social cognition, interpersonal problems-solving skills, and social autonomy.[43] Along with functional skills training, cognitive remediation improves functional competence and real-world behavior.[65] All these trainings related to social cognition are given in various formats including one-to-one, group, computerized, and online methods.[36],[66] Use of virtual reality has also been reported as promising.[61]

It has been reported that psychosocial interventions may improve social cognition. There are broadly two approaches: targeted or broad-based. Targeted approaches usually deal with a specific social cognitive deficit. This may be done one-to-one basis over a single session or through multiple sessions. Broad-based approaches address multiple social cognitive areas and utilize a variety of techniques. This approach is more comprehensive and is usually conducted over many sessions and typically in a group setting.[63] Social Cognition and Interaction Training is one of the psychosocial interventions which has shown possibility of improvement in social functioning.[67] Detail descriptions of these interventions are beyond the scope of this review.


Social cognition is a highly enriched field of study for understanding and influencing social competence and effectiveness. Various concepts from biological, psychological, interpersonal, and social substrates are linked with social cognitions and strategies, opening up avenues to understand and improve outcomes. While these concepts merit specific study on their own, it is imperative to understand holistically the relevance of social cognition for individual effectiveness in the interpersonal environments. Social cognition becomes especially meaningful in situ ations where tasks are complex and collaborative; where there are many stakeholders; and where the effectiveness depends on developing a shared meaning and action.

Research in this specific area has a long way to go and has much scope. While there are many basic biological, psychological and social studies that highlight the importance of social cognition in a broad range of issues and clinical conditions; there is a need for further studies linking these theoretical knowledge base and understandings with clinical and practical utilization. More studies are required to evaluate how these understandings and theoretical underpinnings can be methodologically used in practice and to assess the effectiveness of social cognitive interventions in particular situations and conditions.


We would like to acknowledge the Quality of Life Research and Development Foundation.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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