Science & Research

Paper examines social cognition, human interaction

Human social, emotional interactions affect mental processes such as memory, attention, learning

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2015

A paper authored by University researchers and published in this month’s issue of the journal Cognition examines the relationship between social psychology and cognition.

“Although social psychology has been studying cognitive processing for about 50 years, there are still a lot of questions about the place of social cognition within the field,” said Joanna Korman GS, the lead author of the paper. “We want to know how information processing and perception of other people and of one’s own attitude actually relate to the broader goals of cognition research,” she added.

The paper attempts to explain how individuals use cognitive processes to infer the mental states of others and how social interactions impact processes such as language acquisition, attention, learning and memory.

Social cognition can be defined as “all the tools ‘in the head’ that enable people to understand other people and successfully interact with them,” Bertram Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences and senior author of the paper, wrote in an email to The Herald.

“These tools include imitating others, teaching and learning from others, communicating in a rich representational language and coordinating joint action to achieve complex goals, such as crossing an ocean, building pyramids and developing laws and governments,” he added.

But how do humans manage to infer each others’ mental states? According to the paper, humans “are keenly sensitive to a vast and fast-moving stream of information,” including a “partner’s facial expressions, gestures, contact with objects, tone of voice, choice of words and so on.” The act of participating in complicated social interactions represents “one of the greatest achievements of human cognition,” the researchers found.

Though humans develop cognitive tools to communicate, the communication itself can also affect cognition. One example of its influence can be found within language acquisition, Korman said.

“If you’re a later-born child, you have greater conversational skills because you’re exposed to a greater amount of language. For instance, you might use personal pronouns earlier. So language acquisition is not a static thing — it’s very much a social thing,” she said.

Social processes can also affect memory and learning. “In the domain of memory, research shows that people are more likely to retain information if they discuss it with others,” according to the paper. “People better understand and retain information that they receive through direct communication rather than by overhearing it.”

Social cognition research can be helpful to society in many ways, Malle wrote. For example, when people make mistakes in guessing the emotions and thoughts of others, “the dark side of homo sapiens comes to light: misunderstandings and conflict, prejudice and discrimination, violence and suppression,” Malle wrote.

“In light of all that, it seems pretty important to conduct research to understand when and why such mental state inferences are accurate or inaccurate, socially constructive or destructive,” he wrote.

Qi Wang, professor of human development at Cornell University, said she believes there will be abundant future research on the influence of social networking on social cognition. “It would be very interesting to find out how the Internet changes the way we interact in our groups and our relationships. Technology that has recently emerged in our society is clearly changing the way we communicate,” she said.

The future of social cognition research may also include the application of computational models, robots and neuroscience, according to the paper.

Despite advances in the social cognition field, it is difficult to study human interactions because there are multiple uncontrolled variables. Another person’s appearance, voice and body language can all alter one’s responses, Korman said.

“This is why robotics may play a role in future research — with robots, you can control for these variables,” Korman added.“You can build a robot that has specific features and you can see which features turn on which social processes, and that’s a very powerful thing.”