Biomedical Research

Behind the Scenes of Social Situations: Why We Act The Way We Do

When placed in a social situation, we go through a series of psychological steps that determine how we perceive and react to what is going on. This process varies from person to person, and is the reason why social interactions can be so unpredictable!

By Brian Caballo

Published 7:58 PM EST, Fri April 23, 2021


Picture this: you are a student in class who had just blurted something you believed to be funny out in front of the whole class. All of your classmates burst out into laughter. In one instance, because you see others laughing with “happy faces,” you mentally perceive this as a positive occurrence, and start to get excited and laugh along with everyone else. In another instance, the complete opposite happens. Though you see everyone laughing and being entertained, you perceive this as a negative occurrence and feel like you are being ridiculed, so you start to tear up and feel offended. These two cases are meant to display how the perception of social situations may vary for different people; it all is based on previous memories, experiences, and how we view things, which is not fully consistent in all people. 

Dodge’s Social Information-Processing Model

To better understand perception and reaction to social situations, let’s take a look at one of the most widely accepted theories that have been established for social information processing: Dr. Kenneth Dodge’s Social Information-Processing (SIP) model. In this model, Dodge, describes 5 different steps that dictate how an individual acts in a given situation. 

The first step of this model is Encoding. When placed in a given situation, an individual must observe social “cues” expressed by the people around them to encode. Social cues are essentially different verbal or non-verbal signals that are shown through activity in the face, body, voice, motion. One major example is people laughing and smiling, like in the introductory example. The individual takes these cues in, and begins the interpretation process.

Following Encoding is the step of Mental Representation. When the social cues around the individual are observed and focused on, meaning is then attached to these cues. This interpretation of the cues can be positive or negative depending on how the individual views them mentally.

The next step is Response Accessing. Here, the individual physically responds to the mental representation of the previous step. Such physical responses can either be seen or unseen; smiling and crying are seen reactions, while an increase in heartbeat rate due to excitement is unseen. 

After Response Accessing is the step of Evaluation. In Evaluation, the individual must decide how they end up acting as a result of the perceived social cue. Looking back at the example in which you thought about if the whole class laughed and you began to tear up, a few options can result from this situation. You can think about storming out of the classroom, covering your face, confronting someone close to you, etc. This evaluation period can be extremely short, but it still does occur.

The final step of this model is Enactment. This is when the final action from the Evaluation step is decided upon and executed. This concludes the entire social-information processing procedure. 

It is clear that there are many steps in this social-processing and response process that are personalized to different people. Different perceptions of social cues in the Mental Representation step can be dependent on prior experiences, which may lead the individual to perceive cues a certain way. The decision making occurring in the Evaluation step can be more impulsive, based on whether the individual acts more on emotion rather than logic. That is why social situations are often unpredictable.

Action Tendencies

With Dodge’s model in mind, it is clearer to see why certain people act a certain way more often. For instance, let’s picture someone who has aggressive action tendencies; someone who is frequently on-edge and reacts negatively in many social situations. If that person was placed in the classroom situation mentioned earlier, in which they say something and get laughed at, we can infer that they would take it as teasing and have the reaction of getting upset. This can often result because that person sees the world in a certain way that is much different from others; they tend to focus on the negative and distressing cues around them, and often views situations as threatening. Furthermore, if this person is inclined to execute a negative or aggressive behavior at the end of the SIP procedure, then they may have developed a limited number of responses to social situations. Most of these responses would be violent, which then creates a largely aggressive behavioral tendency. 

How would such tendencies come to be? Such aggressiveness can be attributed to a home life that brings out violent behaviors. Perhaps the individual has a sibling that is frequently violent with actions like shoving, and the individual got accustomed to doing the same back. Therefore, the individual would get used to searching specifically for hostile cues in his household, which carries over to real-world social situations. 

Brian Caballo, Youth Medical Journal 2021



By Brian Caballo

Brian Caballo is a student at The Bronx High School of Science in New York City, NY. He is mainly interested in the fields of neuroscience and stem cell biology.

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