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Social information processing theory describes a set of cognitive-emotional mechanisms specifying how the way in which children interpret a particular event influences how they will respond to that situation. This framework takes into account the database of prior experiences with parents and peers that children bring to new situations. As a result of prior social interactions, children develop cognitive schemas that influence their processing of social information in new situations.
Nicki R. Crick and Kenneth A. Dodge (1994) have proposed six steps in a model of social information processing. First, encoding of external and internal cues is the process of taking in information from the environment. Second, making attributions (or interpretations and mental representations of cues) involves deciding what motivates the behavior of other people. On the basis of information children encode from a particular situation, they could decide that others acted with benign, hostile, or ambiguous intent. Third, selecting a goal involves deciding what the desired outcome is in a given situation. Fourth, generating responses is the process of thinking of possible behavioral actions. Fifth, evaluating responses occurs when children assess whether a response is a good one to use in a particular situation and whether that response will bring about desired outcomes. Sixth, enacting responses is the manner in which a child actually behaves.
Deficits at each of these steps have been found to be related to aggressive behavior. At the first step, aggressive children, compared to nonaggressive peers, encode a smaller number of social cues, seek additional information in ambiguous social situations less frequently, and attend selectively to hostile and threatening social cues. At the second step, aggressive children are more likely than nonaggressive children to interpret ambiguous social cues as threatening. At the third step, selecting instrumental (e.g., winning a game) rather than interpersonal (e.g., maintaining a friendship) goals is associated with behaving more aggressively. At the fourth step, generating fewer behavioral responses overall and a higher proportion of aggressive responses to problems is related to behaving more aggressively. At the fifth step, positively evaluating the likely interpersonal and instrumental outcomes of aggression is related to behaving more aggressively. At the sixth step, skill in enacting aggressive responses is related to behaving more aggressively.
Social information processing mechanisms deal with specific links among environments, cognition, and behavioral outcomes. For example, problematic parent—child and peer relationships are associated with a host of social information processing deficits. Children who have been physically maltreated, for instance, become more attentive to hostile cues in the environment and less attentive to other relevant social cues; poor encoding is, in turn, related to higher levels of subsequent aggression. Similarly, children with insecure attachments to their parents are more likely to have social information processing problems than are securely attached children; these problems appear to stem from relationship schemas involving others’ lack of emotional and instrumental availability. Children who are rejected by their peers also are more likely to have social information processing deficits that then carry over into future social and behavior problems. Thus, social information processing problems serve as cognitive mediators of the association between environmental risk factors and subsequent behavioral outcomes.
- Crick, Nicki R., and Kenneth A. Dodge. 1994. A Review and Reformulation of Social Information-Processing Mechanisms in Children’s Social Adjustment. Psychological Bulletin 115 (1): 74–101.
- Dodge, Kenneth A., and Nicki R. Crick. 1990. Social Information-Processing Bases of Aggressive Behavior in Children. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 16 (1): 8–22.
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