Social Cognition Tells Us How to Live with Our Greatest Threat and Best Hope: Other People


In this article, Shelley E. Taylor and Susan T. Fiske, the pioneering psychologists who were recently distinguished with the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences, analyze the impact which the coronavirus pandemic may have on social life.

28 April, 2020


Shelley E. Taylor


Susan T. Fiske

We study social cognition.  Social cognition is the process of people making sense of the social world — how people think about themselves, other people, social groups, human history, and the future. This self-knowledge and social knowledge begins to develop in infancy, grows across the lifespan, and guides our self-concepts, beliefs about others, and our social behavior. For example, we have to decide whether a new neighbor is cooperative, trustworthy, and friendly, as well as competent to keep the place tidy and maintain social distance when necessary.

An American idiom captures the ups and downs of social cognition, “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” This pandemic spotlights this dilemma, thinking about the other humans we depend on. Other people are the source of our greatest danger and our greatest support. One of us (Fiske) has spent her career studying how people deal with threat from other people, and one of us (Taylor) has spent her career studying how people cope with adversity. Both research programs start with all-too-human problems and discover that humans are adaptable, with a little help from our friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors.  So we study both the ups and downs.

The downside of other people is abundantly clear during this pandemic. We literally can’t live with them because everyone is a possible disease carrier. How do we decide who is safe and sensible? Social cognition allows us to do ordinary mindreading. We infer other people’s intentions—Does the new neighbor plan to cooperate with the government’s recommendations? Does she know how to wear a mask when needed? In the best case, we would make sense of her intentions and abilities by getting to know her as a person. But this takes time and effort that we often can’t spare, being so busy buying masks and groceries, worrying about family. A pandemic eats bandwidth, both personal and electronic.

Because of the bandwidth problem, we often act like cognitive misers, conserving our scarce mental resources. All too often, we take shortcuts to decide who’s trustworthy and who’s competent. All too often, we rely on social categories, such as race, gender, age, immigrant status. It’s only human to be uncomfortable around people we see as different from us, and category difference is one way we judge people. If the neighbor is an immigrant, we may see stereotypically—immigrants as untrustworthy, incompetent, and potential carriers of the pandemic. Yet most infected people catch the virus from family members. Still, categorical judgment is our first impulse.

Globally, people mistrust and disrespect immigrants, blaming them for misfortunes from job loss to the “[name-a-country] flu.” Yet immigrants grow the economy, pay taxes, commit fewer crimes than citizens do, support the old-age pensions of native-born retirees, and create what farmers call “hybrid vigor.” Homogeneity is not good for the health of the country. So we have to get over our understandable discomfort with diversity.

Fortunately, given time, people get used to people who seem different. At first, the neighbors wearing odd headgear may be disturbing. But if nothing bad happens (they don’t rob you or infect you), they become familiar and unremarkable. Mere exposure to an unfamiliar social category can, over time, dissolve anxiety and threat of the New. Evidence supports people’s initial discomfort with diversity gradually dissolving over a 6-8 year interval —at least when politicians and hateful groups do not prolong the adjustment by reinforcing people’s worst impulses.

Not only mere exposure but interdependence —being on the same team— cures people of their social biases. Neighbors can come together because proximity demands it. We can also come together in our entire community, regardless of ethnic origins, to share the best of our humanity. Can’t live without them.

The importance of social support

Into anyone’s life, a little rain must fall (another Americanism).  Nevertheless, we cope. From our social life, we receive and extract social support from others. Social support includes social cognition as well —the beliefs that you are cherished and valued by others and that you are part of a network of people who care for one another.  This network includes a partner, family and close friends, and more casual contacts that are encountered through work and social and community institutions, such as churches and clubs.

Under normal circumstances, social support is one of the most effective resources a person has for dealing with threat.  Such positive social ties are psychologically satisfying, they mute the otherwise potentially devastating emotional and physical consequences of stress, and they reduce the likelihood that stress will lead to mental or physical illness or even death.

One of the particularly disturbing aspects of the coronavirus epidemic is that it undermines and can even eliminate this vital resource. The infection is, of course, socially transmitted, so an infected person likely got it from a social contact and may subsequently inadvertently pass it on to others. How devastating it is to know that one’s social support may be eliminated by the very stressor one is trying to combat, manage, or avoid.

Moreover, it would be comforting to believe that most people will respond with support, caring, and concern for others.  But what is, one hopes, a small minority will do exactly the opposite.  Already, scams are circulating that promote false cures or induce people to purchase useless products that supposedly protect against the virus.   Other scammers have impersonated government agencies to lure in small business owners and people who are self-employed to apply for loans or reimbursements for business costs due to the virus.  Those who are taken in inadvertently provide personal financial information that can lead to huge personal losses.  Phone calls, text messages, emails, and robocalls target people perceived to be especially vulnerable, such as older adults.

This illustrates the importance of knowing about social cognition.  Con artists will use our automatic shortcuts to manipulate us: They will seem friendly and seem to have our best interests at heart, but we have to know when to think twice. Friendly smiles and personal attention often go with being trustworthy, but of course not always. Making sense of friendly strangers requires knowing when to resist the shortcuts and think more carefully.

Once the confinement order is lifted, social life will slowly return to normal, although if the threat is seen as a recurring one and  likely to come back in the Fall, for example, then people may defensively begin to restrict their social contact to the friends and relatives who are most important to them. Social activities, in turn, may be restricted to those that are absolutely necessary.

One can imagine other consequences.  The impulse to form new friendships may be muted, we may come to view the social world with suspicion and concern, children may be raised, not in how to develop social relationships but how to limit them to those that are necessary and safe.

And yet, there is also the likelihood that we will emerge from these trying times with renewed appreciation for our social ties and the physical and emotional benefits they provide.  Never is it more clear than in a crisis that no one solves such severe problems alone.  We must depend on one another for warmth, kindness, and help and by providing and receiving the support that is the essence of our humanity.