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University of Connecticut Intergroup Relations Rob Foels, Ph.D.




Research Programs


Editor, Teaching Section, Psychology of Women Quarterly

Cognitive Complexity Research

I study the effects of cognitive complexity on social justice issues such as intergroup biases and economic inequalities.
Cognitive complexity comes in two forms, representational and attributional.

Representational complexity = mental image of multiple objects rather than an image of the average

Are your mental representations holding one object rubik1 or several pieces? rubik2

Representationally complex individuals hold more information about a group of objects in their mind at one time, and recall more details about the objects later. What is surprising is that a training instruction to focus more on individual objects rather than the average object leads to less prejudice, even when the training objects are wooden blocks not people:

  • Foels, R., Jassin, K., Dasgupta, N., & Reid, L. D. (in prep). Cognitive complexity reduces infrahumanization of traditional cultures.
  • Mullen, B., Pizzuto, C., & Foels, R. (2002). Altering intergroup perceptions by altering prevailing mode of cognitive representation: "They look like people." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1333-1343.

Attributional complexity = mental image of an individual in context rather than an individual in isolation

Do you perceive the individual in isolation or see the situation around the individual too? 

Attributionally complex individuals perceive situational information not just the individual as an acontextual being. Social context is rich with information that helps us to better understand an individual's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Therefore it might not be surprising that the more attributionally complex someone is, the less prejudiced they are:

  • Foels, R.,& Reid, L. D. (2010). Gender differences in social dominance orientation: The role of cognitive complexity. Sex Roles, 62, 684-692.
  • Reid, L. D., & Foels, R. (2010). Cognitive complexity and the perception of subtle racism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 32, 291-301.