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Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor recognized with a Frontiers of Knowledge Award for revealing the role of cognitive bias in social relations

The BBVA Foundation has awarded Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Social Sciences for her pioneering insights, which have elucidated the role of cognitive shortcuts in shaping social interactions. The American social psychologists, two of the most influential working today, have been instrumental for understanding how these shortcuts in mental processing intervene in the formation of value judgments about other people or social situations.

Their seminal 1984 book ‘Social Cognition’ provided a theoretical starting point for the field of the same name and, with its fifth edition now approaching, has become a “modern classic” in the words of the committee, “inspiring and energizing countless researchers for over three decades”

The two awardees met in the early 1970s at Harvard University, when Susan Fiske enrolled in one of the classes taught by Shelley Taylor. The latter had already conducted some research on the attribution theory, concerned with how people explain the causes of their own behavior and that of others. By the start of the 1980s, their efforts had contributed to the merging of different approaches in what, up to that point, had been the separate, even distant, fields of social psychology and cognitive psychology.

With ‘Social Cognition’, the laureates proposed a model where people process information on their social environment (people, groups, social situations) at two distinct speeds: a slow speed, based on a systematic analysis of all available data, and a faster, more frequent one drawing on “cognitive shortcuts,” biases and strategies that simplify complex problems, privileging efficiency over precision.

Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences - BBVA Foundation

Their first object of study was the phenomenon of salience (a process whereby whatever information is salient or stands out will come to be thought of as the cause of the other things going on in that situation). Fiske and Taylor defined several types of social thinker, including what they termed the cognitive miser, who exhibits a kind of bias favoring information that confirms their own beliefs, thus cutting down the mental effort involved in processing. The cognitive miser simultaneously draws on and reinforces existing stereotypes.

Can we overcome prejudice?

As Fiske explains, “the social world is intrinsically complicated and our minds are limited, so we take shortcuts. You couldn’t walk down the street if you were individuating everyone you pass,” explains Fiske. According to the psychologist, “you have to make quick decisions – this person is dangerous, this one is not. And the shortcuts we take mostly work well enough, because, after all, we survive. But some are malignant, including racial or social class categories or other unfair stereotypes.”

On whether such prejudices can be remedied, Taylor believes that, “a lot of social cognition is innate; it’s hard to imagine how we would have survived as a species if it weren’t.” But beyond that, “most of how we think about people, particularly specific people, comes from our experiences, so the dimensions we use for thinking about them are modifiable over the whole lifespan.”

The award’s committee also made reference each laureate’s separate body of work. Fiske has researched extensively into the formation of stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory attitudes, and how they may be alternatively encouraged or discouraged by social relation properties like cooperation, competition and relations of power. “I’ve spent most of my career studying how to overcome harmful stereotypes,” says Fiske. “We have found, for instance, that if you put people on teams, when they are independent and need each other, they take more trouble to form individual impressions and get beyond racial, class or other kinds of discriminatory biases. If you get people of different categories within an organization and tell them their bonus depends on them working together, it’s amazing how fast people get over their prejudices.”

Taylor, on the other hand, is one of the architects of the health psychology field. In this sense, is at the forefront of research into how stress affects health, and how social factors can serve as a buffer in this respect. Also, she discovered the role or function of positive illusions, a rather functional human tendency to see the future as more positive than is perhaps likely. Asked about the potential application of her research to the lockdown imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, Taylor states that positive illusions can be a way to adapt and mitigate the stress caused by social distancing, and highlights the value of maintaining social support by electronic means.

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