Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment in Psychiatry

General Developmental Theories-Social-Information-Processing Theory

Social-Information-Processing Theory

The comprehensive extension of social learning theory and attribution theory is to consider all of the mental processes that people use in relating to the social world. Simon’s work in cognitive science forms the basis for social-information-processing theory. This theory recognizes that people come to social situations with a set of biologically determined capabilities and a database of past experiences (Figure 1-3).

They receive as input a set of social cues (such as a push in the back by a peer or a failing grade in a school subject). The person’s behavioral response to the cues occurs as a function of a sequence of mental processes, beginning with encoding of cues through sensation and perception. The vastness of available cues requires selective attention to cues (such as attention to peers’ laughter versus one’s own physical pain). Selective encoding is partially predictive of ultimate behavior. The storage of cues in memory is not veridical with objective experience. The mental representation and interpretation of the cues (possibly involving attributions about cause) is the next step of processing. A person’s interpretation of a stimulus is predictive of that person’s behavioral response (eg, a hostile attribution made about another’s ambiguously provocative push in the back will predict a retaliatory aggressive response). Once the stimulus cues are represented, the person accesses one or more possible behavioral responses from memory. Rules of association in memory, as well as the person’s response repertoire, guide this retrieval. For example, one person might follow the rule “when intentionally provoked, fight back”; whereas another person might follow the rule “when provoked, run away.” Accessing a response is not the same as responding behaviorally, however, as in the case of a withheld impulse. The next step of processing is response evaluation and decision making, wherein the person (not necessarily consciously) evaluates the interpersonal, intrapersonal, instrumental, and moral consequences of accessed behavioral responses and decides on an optimal response. Clearly, evaluations that a behavior is relatively likely to lead to positive consequences are predictive of that behavioral tendency. The final step of processing involves the transformation of a mental decision into motor and verbal behavior.

Social-information-processing theory posits that people engage in these mental processes over and over in real time during social interactions and that within particular types of situations, individuals develop characteristic patterns of processing cues at each step in the model. These patterns form the basis of psychopathologic tendencies. For example, in response to provocations, one person might regularly selectively attend to certain kinds of cues (such as threats), attribute hostile intentions to others, access aggressive responses, evaluate aggressing as favorable, and enact aggression skillfully. This person is highly likely to develop conduct disorder. Likewise, in response to academic failure, another person might selectively attend to his or her own contributing mistakes, attribute the outcome to personal failure, access self-destructive responses, evaluate all other responses as leading to further failure, and enact self-destructive responses effortlessly. This person is likely to develop dysthymic disorder or major depressive disorder.

Applications of the Theory

Social-information-processing theory has been used successfully to predict the development of conduct problems in children and depressive symptoms in adolescents. Not all individuals with conduct problems display the same deviant processing patterns at all steps of the model; however, most people with conduct problems display at least one type of processing problem. Some children with conduct problems show hostile attributional tendencies, whereas others evaluate the likely outcomes of aggressing as positive. These processing differences accurately predict subtypes of conduct problems: Children with hostile attributional tendencies display problems of reactive anger control, whereas children who make positive evaluations of the outcome of aggressing display instrumental aggression and bullying.

The development of processing styles has shed light on the development of psychopathology. For example, children with early histories of physical abuse are likely to become hypervigilant to hostile cues and to display hostile attributional tendencies. These tendencies predict later aggressive-behavior problems and account for the empirical link between early physical abuse and the development of aggressive-behavior problems.

Social-information-processing theory holds the potential to distinguish among types of psychopathology. In one investigation, groups of children with depressive, aggressive, comorbid, or no symptoms were found to display unique profiles of processing patterns. The aggressive group tended to attribute hostile intentions to others, to access aggressive responses, and to evaluate the outcomes of aggressing as favorable. The depressive group, in contrast, tended to attribute hostile intentions to others as well, but they also attributed the cause of others’ hostile intentions to self-blame, and they accessed self-destructive responses and evaluated aggressive responses negatively.

Social-information-processing theory has suggested interventions designed to help people construe situations differently and to act on the social world more effectively. For example, one intervention has been directed toward helping aggressive adolescents attribute interpersonal provocations in a less personalized and hostile way. This intervention has been successful in reducing the rate of aggressive behavior in these adolescents, relative to untreated control subjects.

Criticisms of the Theory

By focusing on in situ mental actions, processing theory relatively neglects enduring structural components of personality that are emphasized in psychoanalytic and Piagetian theories. Another criticism is that social-information-processing theory locates the sources of deviant behavior in the individual, in contrast to the broader social ecology.

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